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Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2008

Cheap and Cheerful

Conejito’s inexpensive allure

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When it comes to Conejito’s Place, either you love it or you hate it.

At the time that Conejito’s opened, more than two decades ago in a modest corner tavern in Walker’s Point, restaurants in the neighborhood were few and far between, and its simple, inexpensive menu proved to be quite an attraction. The restaurant’s original section remains much the same today, with seating available at the bar or at a long, communal, orange Formica table. Rabbit artifacts are scattered throughout (“conejito” is Spanish for “rabbit”) and there is still a black velvet painting of an Aztec warrior.

Some years ago an addition doubled the restaurant’s size to include another bar, more tables and tile floors that add a Mexican flavor. The addition is somewhat family-friendly, although all the tables have ashtrays.

There are those who dislike Conejito’s because everything is served on paper plates, the menu is small and there is no margarita machine. On the other hand, fans of the establishment are glad there is no margarita machine, enjoy the small but tasty menu and are drawn by the cheap prices and the opportunity to eat at the bar.

To me, you get what you pay for: Conejito’s low prices mean the decor is less than fancy and selection makes way for the efficiency of a small menu. Forget about linens and cloth napkins. Instead, you get paper plates and cutlery only with the plate lunches. Salsa is served in a plastic squeeze bottle, but nevertheless is good and spicy, made with dried chile peppers rather than flavorless tomato. There is a small charge for chips. Break the bank and order them with a dip of refried beans topped with grated cheese for $1.50. Do not be tempted to order the guacamole ($3.75), however. This is the weakest item on the menu, and is so over-processed that the ingredients are unrecognizable.

In Conejito’s early days the menu was tacos, tacos and more tacos. Made with grilled flour tortillas (yes, grilling makes a big difference), they are still the most popular item on the menu. The basic fillings are simple: bean ($2.60), steak ($4) and chopped meat ($4.40). They come in orders of four, with lettuce, onion and Chihuahua cheese.

The meat in the chopped beef tacos is also served as a Mexican plate lunch, served on a real plate with rice and beans. The beef is stewed until it is nearly falling apart and has bits of mild chile, potato and even a few green beans. The rice is average, but the beans benefit from a hint of hot pepper.

One item especially stands out: chicken mole. There is a choice of dark meat ($4.25) or white ($5). Both are served with a mole sauce that is rich chocolate in color and adds a lot of spicy character. Many local places charge $14.95 for a mole that is merely equal to this version.

Pork spare ribs ($4.50) are a meaty serving, though the sauce is the same as on the chicken. The sauce tastes as good with this meal, but the flavor of the pork tends to disappear. Sunday has a special pork plate lunch ($4.25) that is very similar to the daily beef version.

The best deal is definitely the chicken. Chicken enchiladas ($4) are good enough in spite of the bland orange cheese. Two out of the three enchiladas in my order ended up being cheese and onion ($3.80)—it was a mistake by the kitchen, but the cheese and onion proved to be even better than the chicken.

One item that should be an entree is the pork burrito ($1.25). It is small, but has a pleasant dark sauce that bears an uncanny resemblance to the chicken mole.

Despite the increasing number of taquerias offering more variety, Conejito’s has remained true to its loyal customers. The tortillas that come with the moles and plate lunches may be wrapped in a bar napkin, but the service is always friendly and you can get a good margarita for just $3. The bar has a decent choice of premium tequilas, but they’ll cost more than any menu items. Keep it simple and keep it cheap: If you can live by these rules, you’ll enjoy Conejito’s.

Conejito’s Place 539 W. Virginia St. (414) 278-9106 $ Credit Cards: MC, VS Smoking: Yes Handicap Access: Yes

Photo by Tate Bunker