Wichita can’t have enough restaurants serving delicious, authentic Mexican tacos made on two-ply homemade corn tortillas, filled with perfectly cooked meats and topped simply with diced onions and cilantro. Fans of Mexican food already can get excellent authentic versions of such tacos at Molino’s, Paleteria La Reyna, El Paisa and countless tiny taquerias up north.
And now, they can add another one to the list: El Tenampa, the Mexican restaurant owned by Guillermo Botello that opened in November in the former Burger Barn space at 3302 W. Central. The tiny but tidy restaurant has about 50 seats, a self-serve salsa bar and a menu full of dishes that are more Mex than Tex-Mex – and that’s a good thing.
It’s open daily for lunch and dinner, and the owner plans to add breakfast, alcohol and a drive-through in the coming months.
• ON THE MENU The multi-page menu, which is presented to customers in colorful, hard plastic three-ring binders you had in middle school, lists dozens of familiar items such as enchiladas, tacos, burritos and flautas. It also serves several versions of tortas, which are Mexican sandwiches, plus dishes such as gorditas and sopas.
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El Tenampa’s menu offers several meats for filling these dishes, including safe choices such as chopped steak, shredded beef and shredded chicken. But those with a taste for Mexican authenticity also can sample more native meats listed on the menu, including “turkey tail, head, stomach or tongue.” On weekends only, El Tenampa also offers three special dishes: classic menudo, tacos made with shredded lamb and served on a maguey leaf, and a birria stew made with beef or lamb.
• DON’T-MISS DISHES We will return to El Tenampa again and again for its excellent tacos. A basic taco is $1.95, filled with choice of meat, onions, cilantro and salsa. The menu also lists four $2-apiece “specialty tacos.” These are similar to the basic tacos but with the addition of melty, shredded cheese and choice of four meats: grilled steak, chopped steak, “Mexican stir fry” and al pastor (pork).
We ordered one of each, and even though the three beef fillings were indistinguishable from each other, we loved them all. The meats were tender, and the melty cheese served as a nice, non-typical addition that held the contents together. The al pastor was the most interesting of the four, with a bright orange color and a strong cinnamon flavor.
The torta also was a good choice and one of the best Wichita has to offer. We chose a basic torta with chopped steak, which was $9. It was large and filled with lettuce, onions, tomato, avocado and big slices of grilled peppers, all stuffed in fresh bolillo bread and wrapped attractively in white butcher paper. El Tenampa also has a list of specialty tortas which cost 50 cents more and feature unusual filling combinations. The Hawaiian torta, for example, has chopped steak, ham, sausage, pineapple and specialty cheeses. The turkey tail, which I’ve never tried but have read is a succulent and under-appreciated portion of the bird, also is a featured torta filling.
The tortas don’t come with beans or rice, which is surprising considering the price and also considering that two enchiladas cost only $6.50 and come with a generous serving of the restaurants’ excellent homemade refried beans and rice. The enchiladas were just OK, smothered with an almost too-sweet green chile sauce. We ordered one with shredded chicken, which was a bit dry, and one with shredded beef. The dish was fine but wasn’t good enough to tempt us away from the tacos or tortas next time we go.
The burrito we ordered was a simple 12-inch flour tortilla stuffed to capacity with shredded beef, lots of refried beans, rice, onions and peppers. It was a lot of food for $7.50, and because it’s served with no sauce, its surface was a perfect place to experiment with the salsas from the salsa bar, which included a traditional watered down “guacamole” dip, a chile verde, a chipotle salsa and arbol sauce, which was nicely spicy and possessed a flavor as bright as its orange coloring.
The menu’s description of a dish called huarache Tenampa was intriguing enough that we decided we must have it. “Huarache means sandal in Spanish,” the menu read, “and the plate reflects the look.” It did, indeed, but the dish – a tough, oval-shaped corn tortilla topped with chopped steak, cheese, lettuce and tomato – was about as exciting as a sandal. Salsa bar additions livened it up.
The restaurant offers super-thick homemade chips before the meal along with a bottle of smooth, dark red and delicious salsa for each table. Shakers also are on each table filled with red pepper flakes and dried oregano leaves, an interesting and unusual touch.
• AMBIENCE The dining room is small and no-frills, filled with 12 tables with four folding chairs at each. But it’s bright and clean with what appears to be a recently redone faux-wood floor. The self-serve salsa bar is at the front of the restaurant, right next to the cash register. Visitors will initially be confused about whether to order at the counter or wait for a server, but El Tenampa has table service.
• PRICE RANGE A la carte items, such as tacos and gorditas, are less than $2 apiece. The rest of the items range from about $6.50 to $9.
• SERVICE Our waitress was new to the job but fessed up to that fact quickly and happily returned to the kitchen to get answers to all of our many questions. Botello was in the dining room, too, watching over things with a warm smile.