There's a combo platter of reasons why El Cheapo, order-by-numbers, Mexican-ish restaurants are plentiful and popular in Columbus. Let's face it, dining at these generally fun margarita-hustling and "enchirito"-slinging casas is like party-crashing your way into an instant fiesta.
Didn't eat much lunch today? Then dig into free chips and salsa - they'll practically arrive at your table simultaneously with you. Boss acting like a jackwagon again? Make that a grande margarita. Need a burrito-load of feel-good food? Cue the zesty meat, melty cheese and gooey beans. Yep, this crowd-pleasing formula works - thus all the busy and successful El Restaurante clones.
Too bad there aren't more places like Chile Verde instead. Semi-recently (and significantly) enlarged and packing in loyal regulars for around two decades, the much-beloved Chile Verde fulfills all those above obligations while also separating itself from the peso-a-dozen competition.
First of all, rather than risibly making bogus claims of Mexican authenticity, Chile Verde wears its gringo-ness on its salsa-splattered sleeves. See, this non-chain joint goes its own southwestern way, whipping up familiar yet distinct (and quite spicy) food it proudly refers to as "the cuisine of New Mexico." So expect the usual taco, enchilada and chile relleno-type suspects to be served with a special twist, and expect a few unexpected dishes, too.
Yeah, everything's a little better - and/or a bit different - at Chile Verde. This includes their nacho-lubricating margaritas. For instance, you can taste actual fresh lime juice (a rarity) in the cheaply priced ($5.50) House version. For something tarter and smarter, try the Skinny Margarita ($9).
Chile Verde's cheery and charming dining rooms also clue you in to its sunny and non-cookie-cutter "Land of Enchantment" personality. Above a handsome terra cotta tile floor, metallic desert critters scale the walls; turquoise tassels dangle from lamps; and currently, a great little local art exhibit (by Rob Jones) is entertainingly hung of brashly painted Mexican wrestler portraits - these amusingly include some loco mask-clad Buckeye icons.
Food-wise, no visit to Chile Verde is complete for me without a big-ol' bowl of the terrific Green Chile Stew ($5.50). Topped with cheese and tasting tangy, smoky and fiercely spicy, it's filled with chunks of stewy beef, potatoes, beans and carrots and is a must!
Also quite spicy but much lighter was an inspired cucumber Gazpacho ($5). A recurring special, it's cumin-kissed, pulpy, aggressively tart and thoroughly refreshing. Another frequent feature is the very fine fish tacos. Generous hunks of mayo-less mahi mahi were not battered and deep fried but rubbed in a jerk-like spice mix and skillet seared for a much lighter than usual preparation.
Enchiladas take on extra interest when wrapped in organic blue tortillas (two Blue Corn Enchiladas with two sides are $12). Here, you can make neat sauce and meat combinations like: pot roasty shredded beef with the killer chile verde or winey mushroom merlot sauces; chunky chicken with a zingy chile rojo (spicy roasted red chiles enriched with chicken stock) or salsa-y ranchero sauces.
Ordering the Combo Plato dinner affords tons of mix-and-match options (three mains, two sides for $13). You could choose a very good and properly egg white-leavened chile relleno to go with a masa-intense tamale and a meaty fajita taco. As for sides, I'd avoid the boring rice and go with the hearty, dip-like black beans and unusual, dense and cinnamon hinting, skin-on smashed potatoes.