El Loco an institution for Southwest, Mexican cuisine
Has it really been 30 years? I was a college student living around the corner from El Loco in an apartment on Willett Street with four of my closest friends then, rarely able to afford to eat out.
I did make it to El Loco, and I remember it fondly. My recent visit confirmed that El Loco hasn’t changed a bit. I liked it then, and I like it now.
A bar dominates one long wall of the dining room, with booths along the other. Lucky diners get one of two tables in the windows overlooking Madison Avenue. Stucco walls painted a warm color are hung with ponchos and such south-of-the-border paraphernalia, but it’s not overdone. You know you’re in an old Albany storefront building by the glorious tin ceiling way up high.
To get outside, you go through a narrow passage in the back of the dining room past the servers’ work station, and get a glimpse into the kitchen. Then it’s a big step down onto the pocket-sized patio.
They know how to pack in the maximum number of tables without patrons falling over each other. On our side of a privacy screen, I counted 13 places to sit. The tabletops are tiled in brilliant colors, cobalt and sunny yellow. Party lights hang overhead, and ivy and morning glories clamber over the wooden fence from the next yard. A small cactus is a nice touch. It’s charming and casual and you should go there to eat outside while the weather is still good.
Things have changed since 1983 and, although El Loco is kind enough to provide descriptions of tacos, burritos, and such, most folks are familiar with them. Mexican food has become Mexican-American mainstream food. But El Loco is not five-ingredient fast food.
Things have changed in other ways, as well: It’s much more expensive to eat out. El Loco is particular about ingredients, such as Hass avocados and non-irradiated spices, and I don’t think they overcharge.
Our server was friendly and attentive and brought our drinks out right away. She made a fresh pot of cinnamon-scented decaf for my friend Virginia, and remembered to top it off later. We took a look at the menu. Aperitivos consist of variations of chips and dips. A bowl of chips is $3.50, with a choice of several salsas and sauces. They’ve got loaded nachos as well.
Combos are a good bet, and there are permutations of tacos, burritos, enchiladas and chimichangas, from $11 for a taco and an enchilada to $18 for an enchilada, chimichanga or burrito. Combos include one of nine sides, including blue corn bread and black bean soup. There are nacho platters, big salads, and Mexican specialties like chili rellenos.
We started with the chips, a generous serving that we didn’t come near to finishing. Virginia chose the mild salsa roja and we dug in. They don’t put salt on their chips, and I thought they were kind of hard, but Virginia noted that they didn’t break in the salsa. We liked the big, bowl-shaped corn tortilla that held the salsa.
Our food came out quickly, and we were delighted with what we saw. Virginia chose the burrito verduras ($10.75) with a side of local corn. Wrapped neatly inside the cheese-topped tortilla were rice and sautéed fresh vegetables including mushrooms, broccoli, red potato, red pepper, red onion, celery — who knows what else. It was delicious, she said, and she liked the small side dish of brown rice and refried black beans. She added butter to the half ear of roasted corn, seasoned with chile and lime, and said it was delicious.
I had a cheese quesadilla ($9.50) which came with brown rice and a Romaine and iceberg side salad with ripe chopped tomatoes and a bit of fresh cilantro and onion. I worked my way through the serving of salad, and did my best to apply the homemade garlic dressing that came out of the decanter in stingy drops.
The whole-wheat flour tortilla was great; it actually tasted like whole-wheat bread. I liked the ramekin-shaped pile of brown rice, which was crisped on the top where, presumably, it joined the enchilada under the broiler, but it was bland, as brown rice usually is. El Loco did their best to make this healthy, but it was still a big hunk of cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses.
“That’s an indulgence,” said Virginia, mentally calculating the calories on my plate.
El Loco has great-sounding homemade desserts, including cheesecake filling in a deep fried chimichanga, flan and fried dough.
The server brought us the check and some containers to pack our leftovers. The tab came to $30.03 with the decaf and tip but not including the chips, which were left off the bill. We had a delightful time on the patio and enjoyed our meal.
Visit El Loco if you like Mexican and Southwest cuisine; this small, independent restaurant brought it to the Albany area and helped to popularize it. Es una institucion.