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Thursday, Dec. 18, 2003 02:20 pm

A Mexican victory

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The portions are large at Cinco de Mayo. Pictured (left to right) Martin Sarmiento, Argelia Pastrana and restaurant co-owner Raul Pastrana
Photo by Nick Steinkamp

Cinco de Mayo is the Mexican holiday celebrating Mexico's victory over an invading French army in 1862. It's also the name of a new Mexican restaurant that does an honorable job of celebrating authentic Mexican cuisine.

The restaurant opened in August in space formerly occupied by Reflections at the Travelodge on the city's south side. It's owned by Scott Fessler, Al Ayers, and Raul Pastrana, who formerly worked at Xochimilco, another local Mexican restaurant. Many of the menu items are from Pastrana's family recipes. The dishes are made fresh daily, from chips and salsa to the desserts.

The portions are very large, which is why customers often leave with take-out boxes. The extensive menu features 19 lunch specials, 55 combination platters, 21 house specials, plus several kinds of fajitas. There are vegetarian items available, such as bean tostadas, cheese enchiladas, and vegetable fajitas. You can also get a bowl of chicken soup or chicken sandwich.

Lunch prices are very reasonable, ranging from $4 for the Speedy Gonzalez special, featuring one taco, one enchilada, rice or beans, to $7.50 for the Mexican Horseshoe, a chicken or hamburger version nestled in fried flour tortilla shell topped with french fries and smothered with cheese and red sauce. On my recent visit there, I tried the chili rellenos and taco special, served with a guacamole salad and fried beans. As chili rellenos, Mexican stuffed peppers, are among my favorite dishes, I use them as a measure of Mexican restaurants. At Cinco de Mayo, the large pepper had a nice kick and the ground beef and cheese filling melded well with the heat of the lightly coated and fried pepper. It was definitely a success and one of the best I have eaten. I can't say the same for the taco. Although not unlike tacos at other local Mexican restaurants, the seasoned ground beef, lettuce and mound of shredded cheese filled a lackluster shell. The guacamole salad tasted fresh and flavorful.

My dining companion tried the burrito, taco, and enchilada special. There was little difference between the burrito and enchilada. We also ordered a tamale, which came wrapped in a cornhusk with a side dish of the restaurant's special red sauce. The smooth cornmeal of the tamale and the rich tomato taste of the sauce made a nice antidote to the spicier dishes.

Of course, most house specials feature Mexican staples and ingredients. But there are a few options for the steak-and-potato crowd. The Cook Special features an eight-ounce rib-eye steak, french fries, vegetables and toasted bread, while the Cena del Oeste (Western Dinner) is actually an eight-ounce rib-eye served over vegetables, with chicken, garden vegetables, and three flour tortillas.

Salads include taco, tossed, guacamole and garden chicken. Even the side order list reads like a shopping list -- you can order an extra portion of everything from burritos, tacos, rice, and beans to ingredients like lettuce, onions, sour cream, and cheese.

The large restaurant and bar area feature white walls adorned with large fruit paintings, hanging plastic fruit and colorful piñatas, and Mexican hats. Striped blankets hang at the windows and a fireplace provides a nice touch to the front dining room. There's a good selection of Mexican beer and margaritas available, as well as a full bar. On the day I dined there, a large group of co-workers sitting in a corner were enjoying margaritas and celebrating their office Christmas party. The restaurant was not crowded, but the noise level was so loud we could barely hold a conversation.

Cinco de Mayo offers four desserts, including sopapillas, which are fried pieces of flour tortilla with honey, butter, and cinnamon; fried ice cream and cheesecake. We chose the flan, a Spanish caramel custard. The thick, cold and creamy flan was large enough to be shared by two and a nice way to end a spicy meal.

The owners have future plans to open other central Illinois locations in the next year. They also plan to introduce new items to the menu, such as a torta, a Mexican version of a sub sandwich.

Cinco de Mayo is located at 3751 S. Sixth St. Phone: 217-529-3066. Lunch is served 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Dinner menu is always available. Take-out available. Free delivery on large orders, $50 or more.

Salsa with twists and dips

The central Illinois chapter of the National Image Inc. sponsors "salsa nights" dances from 9 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturdays at Cinco de Mayo, located at 2751 S. 6th St.

The non-profit organization is dedicated to promoting education, employment, culture and civil rights for the Latino community.

The fundraising events benefit the Latino Scholarship Fund. Music is provided by a disc jockey and there is a $4 cover charge. Dance lessons are given during the first hour of the event. 

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