Friday, May 17, 2013


Growing up on a farm in southwestern Ohio was for the most part a wonderful experience (except maybe when my Dad refused to buy me the horse I always wanted). But from a culinary standpoint, diversity wasn't a strong point. I didn't taste pizza (or for that matter, even know it existed) until junior high; heck, we were thrilled when an A&W drive-in and Dairy Queen came to town. I was even more thrilled when I got my first real summer job at DQ, too - and I'll bet I still could do a pretty good job of putting those curls on ice cream cones.

"Real" food, whether it was breakfast, lunch or dinner (back home we called the meals breakfast, dinner and supper) was mostly eggs, meat, potatoes and veggies - and often, it came right from our own land or maybe one of our neighbors. Finding anything that had origins in any country other than the US of A was next to impossible.

I suppose that's why I went a little wild and crazy when I arrived in this neck of the woods courtesy of marrying my husband Jack. There seemed to be an Italian restaurant on every corner, interspersed here and there with Greek, Lebanese and a few other ethnic groups. Hot peppers in oil? Check. Wedding soup? Check. Stuffed grape leaves? Double-check. This must be food heaven, I thought.

But one type of food wasn't easy to find on local menus back in the 1960s - Mexican. That is, not unless we made the drive to Lake Milton to El Carlos. Before we got tied down with two munchkins and full-time jobs, we'd enjoy a meal out there every once in a while. After that, for the most part we settled for pizza delivery and Mickey D's.

But in fact, Mexican food has always been a favorite of mine, although like oriental cuisine, every couple of months is often enough to satisfy my cravings. And clearly, it's become a favorite of many folks especially in recent years; Mexican restaurants seem to have taken the place of Italian joints on those street corners.

One afternoon not long ago, though, we were driving around Lake Milton to get some photographs in the state park and decided we needed sustenance. As fate would have it, we spotted El Carlos - and in we went. Since then, I'm happy to report, we've been back several times. 

The first time we came we noticed is that the place has been spruced up. Located in what's basically an old house, it's never been fancy; but now, the exterior has been spiffed up, and the interior has colorful walls, larger windows and some pretty spectacular sombreros hanging on the walls. There's a dining room and separate room with a bar and more tables and chairs; neither is huge, but both are comfortable and inviting. 

Come here Tuesday through Friday (it's closed on Mondays), and you'll find $2 lunch specials from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. For that amount, you can choose a beef and been burrito, beef enchilada, crispy beef taco, beef and bean chalupa, fries or a taco salad - so one of the Mexican treats plus fries or a salad will set you back a modest four bucks. We didn't notice any on-tap beer, but domestic bottles are a reasonable $2.50 and they also have Mexican and other specialty beers as well as mixed drinks including the requisite margaritas (except on Sundays, when you'll have to settle for beer).

You won't find sandwiches here either, except on the "American" food list, which is short and includes things like a hamburger, grilled cheese, grilled ham and BLT sandwiches (all quite reasonably priced from $1.75 for the grilled cheese to $4.25 for a Texas cheeseburger). But that's fine with me; I can't imagine coming here for anything except the Mexican stuff anyway.

Food here can be purchased ala carte, such as a variety of burritos, tacos, fajitas, enchiladas, chalupas and quesadillas; most range from a couple of bucks to $4.75 for the combo fajitas with steak, chicken and veggies. There's even a Mexican pizza for $5.25 - two crispy flour tortillas topped with beef and beans, cheese, peppers and onions and black olives.

Whatever you end up with, though, you'll get a basket of wonderfully delicious corn chips and a bowl of homemade salsa (the salsa is very mild, so I always add hot sauce). One order (one bowl of each) is complimentary, but you can buy more if you want. Usually, we opt for the chili con queso appetizer; the bowl of creamy warm cheese-and-salsa for dipping is absolutely irresistible (and a pretty substantial quantity for $4.50).

A few dinner salads are on the menu as well - served in tortilla bowls with greens and various toppings - and our daughter tried one at one of our visits and was quite happy. But generally, we'll go for one of the whole dinners, which are served with rice and refried beans. I'm partial to the seafood enchilada, while Jack is especially fond of the Mexican stuffed pepper with melted cheese on top ($8 for the full dinner). But the menu lists somewhere around 17 different possibilities, so there's something for just about everyone.

The dinners are quite substantial, too, so you won't go home hungry and, if you're like us, more than likely will end up going home with something in a box. The tacos are fairly large with plenty of meat, although  will say the beef was on the salty side. The refried beans are as tasty as I've had anywhere, but the rice lacked much flavor even after I doused it with the hot salsa I had left from the complimentary bowl.

Another tip: Unless you're sharing it with several someones, it's likely you won't be able to eat all of the chili con queso sauce. If you're having tacos, adding some of the cheesy sauce will make them even more delicious. If all else fails, ask for a container to take it home; our server told us it heats up quite well in the microwave, and she's right.

If you go:

El Carlos Mexican Restaurant
17679 Mahoning Ave.
Lake Milton, Ohio 44429
(330) 654-3257

Open from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.