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Friday, October 31, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 36.0° F  Overcast
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Tasty eats at two taquerias on Madison's west side
Eating in and taking out at El Cabrito and La Mestiza
Antonio Estrada is a co-owner and manager of La Mestiza.
Credit:James T. Spartz

El Cabrito Mexican restaurant is all a taqueria should be -- small, authentic and delicious. The restaurant, located in a strip mall near Woodman's West, at 811 South Gammon Rd., offers a variety of dine-in combo plates and many carry-out items.

My combination plate included a soft-shell taco, a gordita and beans and rice. The taco consisted of a corn tortilla filled with shredded chicken in a savory red sauce, topped with sour cream and queso fresco. The fresh-pressed cheese was a welcome departure from the standard bagged and grated variety.

There are only four tables and a few stools for dine-in guests at El Cabrito. A flat-screen TV displayed a Spanish-speaking game show that involved duck costumes, Velcro balls and an inflatable obstacle course. Elton Juan meets Nickelodeon. I don't speak Spanish very well, but other diners confirmed by their laughter that this show was pretty entertaining.

My gordita was the real deal. The thick corn-flour (masa) shell was split, like a flat hamburger bun, and filled with stewed shredded beef. The beef was tender with the robust spiciness of a red sauce tempered by sour cream and more fresh cheese. A lot of juice ran out when I picked it up, so I was thankful for the plateful of absorbent rice, and a fork.

For $2 each, about a dozen different gordita options are available. The fillings include, among others: nopales (cactus with onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and fresh cheese), carne asada, chorizo sausage, and chicharron "rojo" or "verde," which is pork skin in either red or green sauce.

It is customary to have chips and salsa brought before the meal, of course. It's unclear if they were out of chips or if cracked pieces of hard corn tortilla is the standard fare, but that's what I got. Instead of salsa I was served a pureed guacamole, not the thick, chunky guacamole one usually sees. Its soupy consistency made me a little wary, but one taste eased my suspicions. It was spicy, and made a great sauce for both the taco and the gordita.

El Cabrito has been open for over a year but recently has come under new management. I hadn't eaten there before but would definitely return. I highly anticipate Tuesdays, when the special will be fresh tamales.

Another strip-mall Mexican restaurant has recently opened in Market Square, 6644 Odana Rd. La Mestiza serves cuisine from many different regions of Mexico and has an extensive list of entrees. Lunches range from $5.50 to $8.50 and dinners from about $12 to $18. Brunch is served on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

La Mestiza, which has only been open a couple of months, is about four times the size of El Cabrito but lacks the ambiance of many other Mexican eateries around town; there's a definite cafeteria feel to the room.

The Flautas de Pollo appetizers were quite tasty. Large slices of avocado accompanied the crisp rolled corn tortillas stuffed with shredded chicken and black beans. Sour cream and crumbled queso fresco topped all three flautas.

I had to get my entrée to go due to an energetic 16-month-old. But the Enchilada a la Plaza carried well. Grilled chicken breast, potatoes and carrots served on top of sautéed corn tortillas were all bathed in a lively red chile sauce. It went down well with an ice-cold beer which, thankfully, I had at home. La Mestiza has yet to receive a license to sell beer on site. They do offer sangria, mojitos and margaritas, however.

I might go back when the bebidas menu expands to include Tecate or Modelo, but dinner prices will preclude me from making it an evening destination. Brunch, maybe; it's hard to say no to good huevos rancheros.

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