Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Los Portales

Hillsboro, Mo.

Adam’s pick, no objections.
Hillsboro is not large in any respect, around 1,800 residents. It sits in the near center of the county, deliberately. While most of the county’s oldest towns were built around mines, railroads and rivers, Hillsboro was designed, built from nothing, to serve as the county seat. Private industry did not follow, to this day its most prominent features are the courthouse, sheriff’s department, other county offices and facilities and of course, lawyers, bail bonds, etc.
There’s a McDonalds, a Hardees, a Subway and a Dairy Queen. There’s three or four local restaurants other than the franchises. The city government boasts eighteen full-time employees, including eight police officers. Compare that to the County Sheriff’s office, also headquartered in Hillsboro, which has 162 sworn officers and 76 full time employees and manages a 260 bed county lockup in the middle of town. It’s an odd  situation because of its commutable proximity to the St. Louis suburbs. Tiny, little Hillsboro, population 1,800 is the driver’s seat for a county that boasts 225,000 residents.
The Place:
Across form the courthouse is Los Portales. It serves the town as a bar as well as an eatery. It is run primarily by people of the Hispanic persuasion, which, according to City-Data.com, there are only 39 of in Hillsboro itself.
It’s a rather old building that used to be something else. Inside the floors feel a bit old and slightly warped, I call it character. Like Hillsboro itself, there’s not a lot of effort wasted on décor or ambience, merely the requisite sombreros and Mexican artwork mounted on the walls. The entry is through the bar and it is immediately obvious that Hillsboro hasn’t adopted a smoking ban for such establishments.
We waited at the bar for a moment, a Hispanic lady stepped out and escorted us out of the ashtray and into the ‘smoke-free’ dining area, a large open room made to look much larger by the full-wall mirror on one side. Nearly half of the ten or so tables were already occupied by families with sticky, noisy children. Moms sipped margaritas, dads threw back Coronas. I’ve heard the margaritas here are quite good, if you like that sort of thing. They also boast home-made sangria, I don’t even know what that is. I prefer my alcohol of choice, white wine, as God himself intended it, fresh out of a box. I don’t say this to sound pretentious, rather that I just have more refined tastes and would not be a suitable judge of inferior mixed potables.
After last week’s beer problem, I decided to just order tea. Angel did so as well, Adam went for a Coke. The drinks, chips and salsa were delivered together, we dug in as we scanned the menu. I then noticed that a mere twenty feet away, in the smoking section, sat 37.5% of the Hillsboro Police department. There were three of them, one wearing the gold bars of a Lieutenant. I quickly checked my family for any overt signs of recent illegal activity, I hoped to avoid trouble. Then I recalled that cops always know the best places to eat, and these guys seemed well fed, so they probably weren’t there just to keep an eye on us. I relaxed but avoided eye contact the rest of the time we were there. As it turned out they didn’t arrest, beat up or shoot anyone. Maybe next time.
The Food:
The menu had gotten lighter since our last visit. My old notes said I’d had the #18 combo, this menu only went up to #15.
Me: #15, burrito, enchilada, rice, beans.
Angel: Three-shrimp enchilada with rice.
Adam: Two tacos, one burrito.
I looked at my notes again, the #18 I’d had then was the same as the #15 on the new menu. Oh well. There was also a notation that it would have been better with chicken instead of beef. Too late, the order was already in. We’d barely gnawed through half the chips when the lady returned with our plates. Still sizzling, aromatic, earthy and handsomely, though not delicately, plated.
I went about chopping up my food and swirling it all together, sopping up the beans with burrito, stacking rice on top of it all. I like my Mexican food just like I like my women, spicy, a bit disorganized, (some would say messy) and covered in enchilada sauce.
Angel disassembled her enchilada. “Not much in it beside shrimp, but it’s good shrimp and it has a nice little cheese sauce.” Just as she said this, her fork slipped and somersaulted into her lap, leaving a bright red stain on the front of her shirt. She looked like she’d taken a bullet, though the cops didn’t seem to notice. Out of sympathy/generosity/nobility I let her take a few bites of my beans, and as you know I don’t share my beans with just anyone.
 Adam wolfed his down with his usual speed and near-total silence. When I queried him about his food he replied “I like  consistency.” Which is about as high and verbose a compliment as he can give to anything.
My plate had the most food of the three dishes, I made it most of the way through. It was indeed quite good, but I still thought it might be a little better with chicken rather than beef. I wrote that down so I’d know next time.
The food at Los Portales is good, quite good. It isn’t complicated and it doesn’t have many delicate or subtle features. Many fancier Mexican places try too hard and lose the wonderful simplicity that is really good, Mexican food. This is the food of hard-working, common people. Substantial, savory and simple. It doesn’t need frill or flower. Good, fresh ingredients, solid recipes, and a gifted, consistent cook.

I am quite unable to say anything bad about this place. The food is great, the service is dutiful and professional. Okay, the tea is lackluster and the bar smells like an ashtray. But put that aside and you’ve got the best Mexican food that we’ve been able to find anywhere in the area. The price is awesome, the total bill came in at just over thirty two dollars.
The atmosphere is relaxed, casual, and open. The overhead music is always lively or hopeful and not too loud. The patrons are pretty much all locals and there aren’t that many locals. The place is kid friendly, unfortunately.
I paid the tab. I thought about stepping over to the cops and offering a thumbs up or a thanks. They have a town to protect and serve, in the last ten years they’ve responded to no less than 0 murders, 2 rapes, 3 robberies, 118 assaults, 47 burglaries, 802 thefts, 28 auto thefts and 4 arsons. Impressive for such a small force.

Los Portales‎ on Urbanspoon

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