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Los Gallitos
*** 1/2
Out of a possible five

Cantina worth stop in Ohio

As I drove through Paulding, Ohio, I didn’t need a flashing sign to guide me to Los Gallitos; all I needed was my nose.

The scent filling the downtown air from the big smoker out front was intoxicating, and I am sure it would have led me to the right place even if I didn’t have a GPS.

But it wasn’t that smoker that drew me to Los Gallitos; it was my inbox. I normally wouldn’t drive so far out of Fort Wayne for Mexican food, but many readers encouraged me to make the trip. And I am glad I did.

A friendly little restaurant with folks working and dining there who perfectly represented small-town hospitality, it wasn’t fancy. It was sort of part-diner, part-sports bar. There were old war photos and a smattering of Americana on the walls, but there was also a bar in the back, a few TVs with games on them and electronic trivia games that can be played through those sets.

The menu was mostly Mexican, but not strictly Mexican, which became obvious from that smoker. A full rack of ribs was on special, and there was no doubt I was going to try them.

The rack was huge, tips and all, and coated in a sticky sweet barbecue sauce that sort of formed a glaze over the pork. The meat was juicy and tender, but still had a decent pull from the bone, and it had a deep pink smoke ring that resulted in a rich, smoky flavor that tasted exactly like the aroma smelled when I drove up.

Eric Hart, who has owned the restaurant with his wife, Jennifer, for a little over a year, drove to Kansas City to get that smoker, so it has a good barbecue pedigree. He starts his fire with charcoal and oak, but then uses hickory cut from his own land to provide the flavor. And it is working because those ribs were worth driving back to Ohio for.

Another thing the Harts changed for the better was the carne asada dinner. The menu said it was traditional skirt steak, but I knew it wasn’t as soon as it was placed in front of me. The steak was thicker and did not have the rugged, stringy texture of skirt steak.

And after one bite, I knew what it was and knew that it was a masterful idea to use it. The Harts offer prime rib on the weekend, and they started using the ends for the carne asada.

The meat was tender and succulent and would have been fine on its own (I would not hesitate to order the prime rib now). The onions with it were perfectly grilled and had a little bite, and the corn tortillas were also grilled just a bit to give them a little texture. With a dab of salsa, which was thick with a great fresh tomato flavor, this dish was also worth going back to Ohio for. I think changing the menu and calling it prime rib carne asada might be a wise selling point.

The more traditional Mexican fare also fared well.

The wet burrito deluxe was filled with lightly seasoned ground beef, beans, lettuce and tomato, and was coated in a dark brown, gravy-like sauce and plenty of chewy, melted cheddar cheese. The rich sauce and hearty beans made it filling, but it was mild in terms of spice and also needed a little salsa to liven it up.

Those refried beans were excellent in the burrito and as a side dish. They were made from scratch and were coarsely mashed to still be chunky with bits of skin in them. Los Gallitos’ rice was also a cut above. It was dark brown and dotted with spices, which gave it a little zip.

The combination of beans, rice and ground beef worked wonderfully in an oddly named appetizer: the nacho salad. Nachos are offered with any combination of beans, cheese, beef, lettuce and tomato. The “salad” is all of the above along with rice. The thick, crunchy, deep yellow corn chips were served spread out flat on a large platter with those toppings nicely layered so each chip held every ingredient. It was a chewy, gooey, delicious plate of food that would have been great on its own for lunch.

The BMC dip – beans, meat and cheese – was not as good, as this divided crock of beans and beef topped with melted cheddar had a lot of grease swimming around in it.

Grease was not an issue with the empanadas at Los Gallitos. All of the ones I tried were fried perfectly to be light and crisp, and just thick enough to be a little chewy. The rosita dinner featured two of the half-moon pies, which were about 8-by-3 inches and an inch thick, filled with beef, cheese and chunks of tomato. The two dessert empanadas were filled with a rather mediocre apple and peach pie filling and could have been much better with a little added attention.

When I saw an elephant ear was offered for dessert, I jumped at the chance to try one, but was disappointed again. The dough was fried too long and became one giant crispy chip instead of one of the chewy, doughy delicious sugar-covered treats I get at festivals.

The only other issue I had with Los Gallitos was with its tiny men’s restroom. Walking through a prep area filled with dirty dishes was not optimal but would have been easily forgotten had it not been the cleanest part of the journey. The sink was nestled in a makeshift countertop made of plywood that was filthy, there was a giant hole in the wall behind it that was half-covered with a loose board, and the toilet did not flush properly.

It was a shock considering how much I liked everything else about Los Gallitos. I hope it is remodeled soon because the place was too good to have such an eyesore in it.

Restaurant: Los Gallitos

Address: 209 N. Williams St., Paulding, Ohio

Phone: 419-399-5378

Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Mexican

Handicapped accessible: Yes, excluding restrooms

Alcohol served: Full bar

Smoking status: Non-smoking

Credit cards accepted: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: BBQ ribs ($17), carne asada dinner ($7.50), rosita dinner ($6.25), wet burrito deluxe ($6.50), nacho salad ($6), BMC dip ($3.25), elephant ear ($1.50)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** 1/2 (3 star maximum), atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130, or go to the “Dining Out” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net. DuVall’s past reviews can also be found at the website, and you can hear Ryan from 5 to 6 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.