If you go
El Paisano Mexican Restaurant
Where: 10401 W. Terry St., Bonita
Prices: Appetizers and soups $4-$10.50, entrees $8-$17
Information: (239) 390-1981
Where: 27080 Old 41 Road, Bonita
Prices: Starters $5-$8-$17
Where: 4288 Bonita Beach Road, Bonita
Prices: Starters and soup $1.25-$6, entrees $.85-$6
Tortilleria de la Rancherita
Where: 26751 Old 41 Road, Bonita
Information: (239) 498-4633
BONITA SPRINGS — It immediately beamed my taste bud memory back to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, circa 1982. I had tasted ceviche for the first time then — shrimp ceviche with an unusual, distinctive seasoning I couldn’t place — in a funky seaside patio cafe.
Nearly 30 years later it came back to me in a wave as I bit into the ceviche de camaron at El Paisano in Bonita Springs, by which time I was well familiar with cilantro. This rendition was served on a crisp tostada, and although the sea was nowhere in sight from downtown, the experience was ever so true to the Yucatan.
One of a small collection of authentic Mexican take-out-eat-in spots around Bonita, it serves home-cooked, fresh-tasting, affordable specialties designed for the local Hispanic population. Tongue taco or tripe soup, anyone?
That aside, most dishes are suited also to less adventurous gringo palates: seafood soup, cheese flautas, shrimp fajitas, and a tasty burrito stuffed with grilled chicken (or pork or steak) and served with rice and beans – a bit on the bland side, but that’s where the tasty salsas take up the slack.
Thick homemade nacho chips come with a green tomatillo and red tomato-based sauce, both full of flavor and nicely tongue-tingling.
Same is true of nearby Tortilleria la Rancherita, except the red sauce was inferior despite the small restaurant’s genuinely Mexican character. Sharing space with a small store that sells Mexican groceries, votive candles, and rosaries, Tortilleria holds a handful of tables, a foosball game, and a big-screen TV broadcasting Spanish.
I stopped in recently for breakfast, hoping for huevos rancheros, but was forced into plan B by lack thereof. Here, in addition to tongue, you can order cactus (nopales), liver, egg with ham, or a dozen other fillings for your tostadas, quesadillas, burritos, gorditas, or tacos – the latter for which it’s most famous.
So why, instead of its famous tacos, did I end up ordering the beef tripe soup (menudo)? Good question. It’s one I asked myself more than once.
It wasn’t because I had a hangover, for which it is a reputed cure. Just one of those things on my culinary bucket list, I suppose. I’ve done that now, and probably won’t ever again.
The flavor– slightly spicy and cilantro-pronounced– was excellent. The texture of the tripe took some getting used to.
To reward myself for my valor, I also ordered one chicken and one pork tamale – steamy, pure perfection of fluffy corn wrapping around the tucked-in treasures they held. (The chicken far excelled, however.) And only $1.75 each!
Rancherita makes up with affordability, variety, and veracity what it lacks in atmosphere. Chicken, steak, pork, and seafood specialties run the gamut from bistec en salsa verde o salsa roja to camaron a la diabla and chicken mole.
My next stop on the salsa trail took me from downtown beach-ward, where Taco Mix flexes beyond Mexican to include also Cuban fare to please the beach-going crowd.
Nonetheless pure in its south-of-the-border orientation, it whips up a marvelous guacamole. Taco Mix also touts its tacos, and I found the barbacoa (lamb) variety tasty enough, but a little dry. The beef enchiladas far exceeded with their layers of guajillo salsa, tomato salsa, cheese, and piped sour cream.
The top dog of enchiladas, however, I must award to Maria’s Restaurant,
Larger and more atmospheric than the others with a full bar, it takes true Mex a step higher with an impressive selection of specialties such as tampiqueña (cheese enchilada with fried chicken or breaded beef steak, or grilled steak, chicken, or pork), beef steak and potatoes pan-fried with onions and tomatoes, and sautéed octopus.
Enchiladas are a clearly a priority here, and you won’t be disappointed by the chicken mole enchiladas with their deep chocolate and chile complexion. Then, there’s just no excuse for not trying the caramel flan to finish up one amazing, passport-free taste-bud departure to Mexico.
Chelle Koster Walton is author of the Sarasota, Sanibel Island & Naples guidebook and the Sanibel & Captiva Island Essential Guide iPhone app. She has been writing about local food and dining for 20 years.