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Over (at) the Rainbow

El Arco Iris is a place to dine again and again

By Erica Wayne 11/10/2011

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Mijares may hold title to the oldest (and still excellent) Mexican restaurant in the Pasadena area, and other venerable establishments (e.g., Ernie Jr.’s, El Cholo) have maintained their fans despite, or perhaps because of, moves to newer locations. But one on the outskirts, El Arco Iris in Highland Park, doesn’t seem to get as much notice. It should!
Not only does El Arco Iris (as it name might imply) serve an entire rainbow of delicious Mexican dishes, it also has a well-worn comfortable dining area, large but cozy, with all dark wood and arches, ample booths as well as large tables, where you can come as a party of two or 20 and still find plenty of room. The restaurant, on the south side of York Boulevard, has been a favorite of Occidental College students and faculty for decades; but other locals know its worth as well.

At the entrance, there’s a blown-up wedding picture of the founders, Gustavo and Irene Montes, who started the restaurant as an eight-table storefront in 1964. As it approaches its 50th birthday, El Arco Iris is run by the third generation of descendants still using the same cherished family recipes for many of their signature dishes.

One, their mole poblano ($12.95 on chicken; $11.95 on enchiladas), was featured in an LA Times article. The writer mentioned that it was much less sweet than most other local recipes; that’s fine with me. It’s a relatively mild preparation — my tastebuds are tuned to a higher level of heat, but the flavor’s subtle and rich and I often order it.

El Arco Iris also uses the family recipe for carnitas, tender slow-cooked pork served with onions, cilantro and guacamole ($12.95). It’s another of my favorites. The restaurant’s pico de gallo is rather tame; I prefer to douse the meat with the peppier salsa verde that they bring to the table with bowls of chips.

Speaking of chips, relatively low on salt, they’re perfect for the 21 premium tequilas they serve from the back of the huge wooden bar. The margaritas are first-rate and reasonably priced. Strawberry and mango blends are also excellent, served in “manly” highball glasses. They’ve got the usual Mexican beers (Tecate, Dos Equis, Negra Modelo, Corona and Pacifica) along with the less frequently found Cucapa Honey and Chupacabras Pale ales.

I’m amazed at the breadth of El Arco Iris’ menu. Appetizers include sopes filled with beans, lettuce, pico de gallo, sour cream and queso cotija with a choice of asada, chorizo, chicken, barbacoa or carnitas ($7.50). They’re fabulous, but so is the caldo de albondigas with THREE meatballs ($8.95). Their nachos ($8.75) come with chorizo too, a definite step up from the ordinary.

I’ve never tried their burritos ($4.50 - $8.95). I’ve been spoiled by Puebla Tacos’ shrimp prep, which is missing from El Arco Iris’ menu, although I’m sure they’d whip one up if asked. On our last visit, we saw an entire 10-person party being served with them – gigantic envelopes that tempted me sorely. But I was focused on pescado a la Mexicana (sautéed with jalapenos, tomatoes, onions and bell peppers — $14.94) and couldn’t be swayed.

Rib-eyes ($13.95) play an important role on El Arco Iris’ menu. They come plain, breaded, sautéed in spicy ranchera sauce or chopped and sautéed with tomatoes, onions and bell peppers. My husband loves the ranchera recipe, but I would rather order the restaurant’s beef in chile Colorado ($12.95), fajitas ($13), a la carte enchiladas ($3.75 each), tacos ($3 each) or taquitos ($4 each).

Other items can also be ordered a la carte: chile relleno ($4.25), tamales ($3), soft tacos with carnitas, asada, chorizo or barbacoa ($3.50) and fish tacos ($3.95). When I want a combination of tastes and textures, at other Mexican restaurants I often order a chicken tamale, chile relleno and cheese enchilada without beans and rice. But I never do at El Arco Iris for two reasons. First, the chile relleno here isn’t one of my favorites (I prefer poblano to bell peppers). Second, and more important, I’m hooked on the sides.

You see, the rice and beans at most Mexican restaurants are completely forgettable — dull starch without much flavor. But El Arco Iris offers the alternatives of wonderful pot beans (great big fat ones) and tangy cilantro-lime rice with most of their entrees and with all combination plates (one item - $8.95; two - $10.45). These are definitely not to be missed. They sell them to go, and I walk out with a quart of each ($7) damn near every time I’m there.

York Boulevard between Avenue 64 and Eagle Rock Boulevard has been gentrifying, and as a result, there are several new eateries. Maximiliano, the latest Andre Guerrero enterprise, recently opened with a menu featuring really interesting Italian fare (more about that in a forthcoming review). And further west, next to Elsa’s Bakery, a nouvelle French restaurant, James Graham’s Restaurant BA (pronounced as in baa, baa black sheep) will supposedly open by the end of the year (again, exciting cuisine; again, stay tuned.).

But with all the fuss over new and exciting dining spots, there’s still room in my heart for the old-timers, whose traditional recipes and familiar surroundings provide a link to a simpler time. Pair the comfort food of carnitas and enchiladas de mole with a great margarita and the pizzazz of cilantro-lime rice, and there’s no place I’d rather be than that neighborhood favorite, El Arco Iris.

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