Restaurant Review: Ole to El Rocho's

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 3, 2013

I find Mexican food just too heavy most of the time. Tacos, tortillas, nachos, not to mention rice and refried beans, all weigh down the stomach like lead. So it's not often that I indulge in it.

Yet last week, I was at El Rocho's Mexican twice, partly to get a better sense of the cooking for this review, but also because I just wanted to eat the food again.

I did not like everything I ate, but most of the dishes by chef-owner Marcus Loh, who had worked at the Les Amis Group's French restaurant Au Jardin and Vietnamese restaurant Annam, were really good.

Almost all the entrees were winners. And some of them were huge, considering that they were supposed to be appetisers. I would recommend you share if you are planning on ordering main courses.

This was especially true in the case of the Shrimp Nachos ($17), much though I was tempted to have it all to myself. The shrimps were lighter than the more common meat toppings, but even then I could not have finished the generous serving without help.

The sweet and fresh shellfish was delicious under a blanket of melted cheese and sliced peppers, with chopped scallions and cilantro sprinkled on top giving the dish an Asian touch.

Served on a nest of tortilla chips that were used to scoop up the sticky mix of shrimp and cheese, the contrasting textures were such a delight on the palate that few would fail to fall under its charm.

An even more heavy, and just as satisfying, entree was the Carne Asada Fries ($17). Fluffy fries took the place of the tortilla chips and it was flank steak instead of shrimps. And over the pieces of beef were a yummy mix of chopped tomatoes, onions, green chilli and cilantro, together with hearty lashings of spicy BBQ sauce, guacamole and cream sauce.

For something lighter, there was the Fish Ceviche ($17). Diced pieces of raw fish were marinated in citrus juices to "cook" them before being tossed with diced tomato, onion, chillies, cilantro, jicama, avocado and bits of crispy corn. It was spicy and sour, which did wonders in rousing the appetite. And I liked the way the crispy corn provided textural contrast.

Main courses were just a tad dull after the scintillating starters. The Yucatan Braised Pork ($22) was too sweet for my liking. Attempts to brighten up the flavours with slices of pickled red onion and habanero pepper were not enough to relieve the dominance of honey or the dryness of the lean meat.

I rather preferred the Stewed Lamb ($26), which had more complex flavours from dried chillies and spices. There were the same pickled red onions too. The meat smelled slightly strong, but not so much as to be off-putting.

The Chicken Mole ($19) was more interesting with its complex mole that was made with dried chillies, tomatoes, nuts, spices and chocolate. It tasted intriguing at first, but my palate soon started craving something more refreshing, which failed to come from the accompanying refried beans.

All main courses came with a choice of rice or corn tortillas, which were used like popiah skins to wrap the meat.

The restaurant offered only one dessert, but the Tres Leches Cake ($9) was so good it did not need any other. Made with three types of milk - fresh, condensed and evaporated - the cake was moist and soft. Sitting in a pool of cold milk, it tasted refreshing rather than heavy, especially when it wasn't very sweet. And the bits of pistachio and a maraschino cherry were just enough to add variety to the flavours without crowding them.

The dessert alone was reason to go back to the restaurant a second time. And a third and fourth too.

SundayLife! paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.

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