Don't let the name fool you. El Rodeo Grill is owned by the Ibarra family, who own the El Rodeo chain of restaurants in the Triangle. But El Rodeo Grill is emphatically not just another El Rodeo.
One difference becomes obvious the moment you set foot inside the new restaurant. Instead of the cactus-and-sombrero cliches that characterize the decor of the Tex-Mex chain, El Rodeo Grill sets a more upscale but still casual mood with potted tropical plants and large impressionist paintings of caballeros and Latin dancers on festively colorful walls. Behind the bar, a mural of a man working in an agave field hints at the impressive selection of some 20 tequilas.
The kitchen sets its sights considerably higher than the Tex-Mex restaurant norm, too. You'll find some of the El Rodeo favorites here fajitas, enchiladas and chimichangas, to name a few but their recipes have been tweaked for greater emphasis on quality ingredients and scratch preparation. The menu is also peppered with more ambitious offerings such as green chile and chorizo quesadillas, Baja-style fish tacos (an occasional nightly special) and chile relleno en nogada (stuffed with a picadillo of almonds, raisins, and sauteed vegetables). Even so, prices are modest, with most dinner entrees in the $10-12 range, and a featured combo of the day going for a bargain $5.99.
Dishes aren't strictly authentic, as a rule, but instead present authentic flavors in ways that appeal to a wide audience. Order the carnitas soft tacos, for instance, and you'll get two large flour tortillas filled with succulent shreds of pork that has been slowly braised in a marinade of Seville orange juice and garlic-infused oil. About the only thing these tacos have in common with the version you'd get at a traditional taqueria is their chopped onion and cilantro topping. But the El Rodeo Grill tacos are just as sublime in its own way.
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El Rodeo Grill earns the "Grill" part of its name with a selection of parillas, char-grilled meat platters served on a sizzling cast iron skillet and accompanied by flour tortillas, grilled green onion and jalapeno, and soupy, savory charro beans. The steak parilla combo, which features exceptionally tender skirt steak, mild Mexican sausage and spicy, locally made chorizo, is a carnivore's dream come true. Other options, which I didn't sample but sound tempting, include spicy skewered shrimp and adobo-marinated chicken breast.
I can, however, vouch for a couple of other alternatives for those who prefer to, um, steer clear of red meat. One is the chile relleno Costa Brava, which stars a large poblano stuffed with shrimp, vegetables and a mild, subtly smoky chile cream sauce. The other, listed under the starter heading as "chicken rolls & chipotle cream dip," is a contemporary twist on taquitos featuring deep-fried flour tortilla rolls filled with juicy shredded chicken breast. Even when the rolls aren't quite as "crunchy" as the menu promises, they're addictive.
The vegetarian offering is modest in length but surprisingly varied for a restaurant named El Rodeo Grill. In addition to the aforementioned chile en nogada, tempting options range from roasted corn and poblano soup to cheese enchiladas with a complex red mole sauce. And even though chips and salsa are complimentary, the dip sampler of queso, creamy bean-chipotle, and freshly made guacamole is well worth the $6.99 splurge.
There are occasional misfires Mexican shrimp pasta that comes off as uninspired and bland, flan that's too dense and sticky, service that can get overwhelmed but nothing out of the ordinary for a restaurant that has only been open for four months.
El Rodeo Grill opened in September in the space vacated when the upscale Mexican restaurant Jibarra (also by the Ibarra family) pulled up stakes to relocate downtown. According to Joel Ibarra, the new restaurant aims to fill a niche between the extremes of Jibarra and the El Rodeo chain, offering a dining experience that's affordable and family-friendly but gastronomically rewarding. I'd say it hits the target.