Its the attention to detail that often separates mom-and-pop joints from chain restaurants.
Sure, the big-name places may be newer and fancier, and they probably have more than 20 people working on a busy night instead of, say, two. But the effort of the two people at the small restaurant that is their livelihood is what makes a difference.
At Los Portales Mexican restaurant on East State Boulevard, the couple running the place made me feel welcome, did their best to tend to my every whim, and showed care by making – and in some cases not making – their food from scratch.
The highlights on my visits were the first things I received during each, the aguas frescas. Los Portales offered a huge variety of these fresh-blended fruit drinks, including mango, watermelon, strawberry, cantaloupe, papaya, lemon, orange pineapple and the traditional rice horchata. The mango was particularly tasty, as was the tangy strawberry-lemon.
The things the folks there would not make included a papaya drink because they felt the fruit was not up to snuff. The same was true for my first dessert choice, the Bananas Portales, because the bananas were a bit too green. Instead, the woman waiting on me suggested I try the apple version of this orange-infused caramel dish. And I was glad I took her advice because this dessert was impressive.
The chef sautéed slices of tart apple and whole cinnamon sticks in a caramel sauce and squeezed fresh orange juice into the pan to create a scrumptious, syrupy sauce that was served over a scoop of vanilla ice cream. This sauce would have been good on about anything, and was the perfect accent to the slice of Los Portales homemade flan. Topped with coconut and shaved almonds, the flan was rich, custardy and worth having again for sure, but I would have to have it with the orange-caramel apples, too.
Most of the food at Los Portales was simple and most of it came off as mediocre.
The quesadilla appetizer was the best example. It was made with grilled steak and a freshly made tortilla, but it was served alone on a plate with no sour cream, guacamole, pico de gallo or any kind of accents. It looked like something I would whip up in about 10 minutes at home for my kids lunch.
Los Portales dark brown salsa was much more interesting. It was fiery with bits of dried pepper and seeds dotting it, and I used it throughout my meal to add some zip. But the chips failed to deliver like the fresh tortilla. They were hard and not warm enough.
The carne asada dinner also looked rather boring. The skirt steak was tender and perfectly grilled, but it was flanked by a small scoop of forgettable refried beans and rice that looked drab with no hint of red color from salsa or other seasonings, let alone any onions or other vegetables.
The most disappointing entrée was the milanesa con queso. This breaded and deep-fried steak was topped with mozzarella cheese that was only half-melted. The fries on the side were the standard food service crinkle-cut variety. The tomato and lettuce garnish only brought the dish down as the lettuce was pale and limp and the tomato was unripe and hard.
The chicken tamales were highly recommended by a colleague who said they were wrapped in banana leaves Central American-style instead of the usual corn husks. Mine arrived tepid without wraps, and were just OK. I found the green sauce covering one had more flavor than the one with red sauce. I could tell the chicken inside was pulled by hand from a freshly cooked bird. Unfortunately, a large portion of one of the tamales filling consisted of a rubbery, inedible chunk of fatty chicken skin.
The créma condé soup was also recommended, and it also fell flat. This murky black bean soup had an unappetizing gray color and was in a relatively small bowl considering its $6.75 price. It had a hearty, slow-cooked flavor and there was plenty of cheese, but its dried peppers, which reconstituted in the broth, had an unpleasant tang to them.
The Alambres-style chicken fajita was decent with plenty of tender meat, peppers and onions enrobed in sauce and covered with melted mozzarella. The corn tortillas were not as good as the flour, but I was quickly provided with flour ones when I asked. The only flaw in this dish was, again, lack of any sour cream, guacamole or pico de gallo.
Overall, Los Portales needs some work. The folks there do seem to care about the food they produce, but they need to pay more attention to detail. Like the food, the atmosphere is way too basic. During one visit, I had a hard time conversing with my family due to blaring gospel music. The menu also needs a lot of work as it was poorly translated and difficult to navigate.
Restaurant: Los Portales
Address: 3307 E. State Blvd.
Hours: 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Agua fresca ($2.75), créma condé soup ($6.75), tamales ($3.50), milanesa ($9.75), carne asada ($9.75), Alambres ($9.75), flan ($4.75), caramel apples ($7.25)
* (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).