I am trying to think of the most unsettling news of a restaurant closing since my tenure as a fancy cuisine editor began some seven-plus years ago. There have been a few heartbreakers. The Mobile food landscape has been drastically altered since that time known as “before the Saints won the Super Bowl.” For the most part the change has been for the better, but the one that really left a hole in our hearts was when Yen bit the dust.

Yen was this Holcombe Avenue destination that had a select piece of our fair city’s dining club (and I use these words pretty loosely) hooked. It was Vietnamese food better than most in this area. It was never super packed, it wasn’t overly fancy, but for people like Rob, David Rasp, Pete Mackey and myself it was a special treat to visit the unassuming eatery. So special, in fact, that on many occasions the waiters would finish my sentences when ordering for the oft-tardy Rasp.

We mourned the day we were told to cross Interstate 65 for summer rolls and pho as the place shut down without warning. There was no “Save the Yen” campaign, nor was there a countdown to the end of days. We showed up to locked doors on a usual Thursday lunch.

It didn’t take terribly long for a new restaurant to fill the void, this time in the form of Mexican cuisine. El Mariachi replaced our old favorite to glowing Facebook reviews, as some people in this town believe there cannot be enough Mexican food. It was finally time for me to give it a try, so I called in Catherine and Pete for what would be my first look at the old stomping grounds.

El Mariachi has a clean, slick look to it, basically Yen with different accents. The interior of the building hasn’t changed much that I can remember. I arrived before my guests and began the evening with a margarita, which I desperately needed after a long but productive week. Ever have a margarita that tastes like dishwater? This was certainly not one of those. I take mine on the rocks with no salt, and loved this version. It was slightly fruity, and as far as sweetness goes it stayed on the right side of the road.

(Photo | Daniel Anderson) El Mariachi brings hearty Mexican fare and tasty margaritas to
Holcombe Avenue, at the former Yen site.

Cat and Pete arrived as I was receiving my complimentary salsa and Popun Dip ($7.50). The salsa was as good as most in the city, but I was excited about the popun dip. I’d never heard of this appetizer, but a thick, almost soupy bowl of beef, chicken, rice and cheese served with the same tortilla chips that came with the salsa is a great way to warm up the taste buds. We left not a drop in the bowl and Catherine commented she could have just ordered that for dinner.

The menu is full of the usual Mexican fare, save the cheese sticks and chicken wings on the appetizer page. There is menudo as well as chicken, beef or shrimp soup. Of course there are signature dishes, but Pete decided to go with the Pedro Classic, Number 16 Tacos Dinner ($7.99). This trio came out hard and full of beef. What more could you ask for under 10 bucks? That’s my kind of eating. No beans, no rice, just great hard-shell tacos with tons of cheese, lettuce and tomato.

Catherine, our resident Mexican food fanatic, weighed the value of the combination platters and finally settled on Combo 8 ($9.25), explaining that, while similar to Combo 3, Combo 8 is far superior and only a quarter and a penny more. From left to right the hot plate began with a beef burrito, a chicken enchilada, a beef taco and a chalupa. There was no way she was going to finish this meal. Bang for the buck, this is a monster.

When on a review, if the place has a dish that bears its name I often get it, thinking it’s probably a good representation of what the restaurant is going for, its chance to shine so to speak. That would be the Number 1, El Mariachi Special Dish ($17.99). Another giant plate of food, the numero uno touches all of the bases with steak, chicken and shrimp.

The 6-oz. steak was a smallish, tough piece of meat. The chicken was pounded thin before cooking and the shrimp were of a small to medium size. There was a bit of salad with slices of avocado as well as rice and beans, and though the menu promised tortillas I received none. I didn’t need the extra calories, anyway. Really, the only thing special about this entrée is that it is the most expensive menu item. It is definitely not what this place is all about. They do much better than that.

I was also sad to see that although they offer seafood dishes there is no Mexican shrimp cocktail, which I have grown fond of in my later years. Sadder still that there were no mariachis I could tip to serenade Pete. But please don’t take my complaints the wrong way. This is a pretty good restaurant and you should definitely go for a quick lunch and return for dinner when you can take advantage of the recently acquired liquor license. Pete had a couple of Modelo Negras that were very complementary to the tacos.

Stick to the classics. I can’t wait to return for Mexican tacos, as they do have pastor, lengua, chorizo and carnitas with raw onion and cilantro. This place doesn’t replace Yen for me, but at least we got a good Mexican joint out of the deal. Maybe you’re right, you can’t have too many of those around.

El Mariachi
763 Holcombe Ave.
Mobile 36606