Despite hitting a few occasional bumps, the original branch of a highly successful local Mexican food pioneer continues to please crowds with new dishes and old favorites
El Vaquero has practically become synonymous with Mexican food in Columbus. A local pioneer in the cuisine back when soft corn tortillas were rarely seen elsewhere in the area, the original El Vaquero on Riverside Drive — which opened in 1993 and is the subject of this review — was among the first Columbus restaurants to list mole and carnitas on its menu.
Obviously, things have changed since then: El Vaquero has grown into an 18-branch juggernaut, and good Mexican food can now be found all over town.
Still, year in and year out, nearly every readers' poll from just about every local media outlet declares that El Vaquero offers the best Mexican food in Columbus. I hadn’t visited the place in at least a decade, so I figured it was time to catch up.
El Vaquero’s success has gone to its headcounts, which are routinely copious and spread throughout a patio and two dining rooms — one rife with windows, and the other (my preference) equipped with comfy booths and a sunken bar that’s been a fixture at the original location since the early days. Aside from fairly handsome flooring, the decor comprises a conventional blend of ochre walls, TVs, souvenir shop-quality, Mexican-esque “art” and booze-company displays.
Within seconds of being seated, customers are brought thin tomato salsa with a spicy kick, plus warm-and-thin tortilla chips that curiously remain crisp for just a couple of minutes. Multiple Mexican beers ($4.47 for 21 ounces) are available to mitigate the salsa’s sting, as is a solid Mexican-style lager bearing the restaurant’s name produced by the Cincinnati-based Taft’s Brewing Company.
Prefer a cocktail? The overpriced Jumbo Roca Patron Skinny Margarita ($13.89) is a little better than the undistinguished, pre-mixed House Lime Margarita ($8.89 for a jumbo).
Initially gobsmacked by the humongous menu, I acted on instinct and started with an old favorite: Pollo Ranchero. The price had increased ($13.89), but this dish of tender, seared chicken strips swamped in a zippy sauce related to queso dip and nacho cheese was as irresistible as I remembered. Its sides — Mexican rice or veggie-accented brown rice and refried beans or more interesting black beans — accompany most entrees and are pretty good, if over salted.
The Pozole ($7.19 for a bowl) tastes mostly of pulled chicken and pico de gallo. It’s hardly the most nuanced version of the hominy soup I’ve tried, but is pleasant enough.
Tacos al pastor fans will find an extremely likable take on them here ($10.99): smoky, crisply seared pork bits enhanced by a perky marinade, grilled pineapple, cilantro, onions and decent soft corn tortillas.
“Create your own combo” platters ($12.49 for three items) allow diners to graze on cuisine standards such as a flavorful, tender tamale; an OK chile relleno that would be better if skinned; and a not-bad enchilada. This trifecta arrived doused in a pale-orange, enchilada-style sauce that blurred everything together and was quite salty.
A tempting new entree starring stewed chicken — Tacos de Tinga ($10.99) — was a bit too spicy and way, way too salty.
Unlike revenge, Cochinita Pibil ($13.89) is not a dish best served cold. Too bad that’s how mine was served, and too bad mine was missing its onions cooked with lime and habanero. Otherwise, this piquant and delicious, slow-cooked and tender Yucatan-style pork entree fragrant with achiote and served over rice was terrific.
I won’t be waiting another decade until visiting this eatery again because it features plenty of crave-inducing dishes among its legion of crowd-pleasing offerings. But if El Vaquero wants to earn my praise as the best Mexican restaurant in town, it has some work to do.