Authentic Mexican food has been finding its way into Spokane for several years now, providing discerning diners here with welcome relief from the pale, Norte Americano approximations found locally at fast food joints and even at some sit-down Mexican places. Restaurants that excel at this festive cuisine aren't always easy to find, however. They tend to be tucked away here or there, located behind something else or otherwise a little off the well-beaten path. But that's part of their charm, isn't it? As in "I know this great little out-of-the-way place that makes the best authentic Mexican food ever."
Just such a place is El Gallo Giro, a tiny Mexican restaurant boasting great big tastes located next to -- actually, connected to -- the convenience store/gas station on the corner of East Third Avenue and Thor Street, just off the freeway across from that big-ass Fred Meyer. Can you see it? It used to be a Taco Bell, but please expel that connection from your head right now because El Gallo Giro (which has been here for about a year) has about as much in common with Taco Bell as an iPod has with an eight-track player.
The interior is ultra-bright and cheerful, painted in an almost fluorescent lemon-lime with turquoise chairs and decorated with pi & ntilde;atas, plastic plants, paintings, Catholic iconography and several prominent representations of the restaurant's rooster mascot ("El Gallo Giro" is Mexican slang for "the cocky rooster"). The people working the counter -- all members of the Martinez family -- are cheerful, too. Francisco is the family patriarch and owner who works in the kitchen with other family members while Juan describes menu items to customers and takes orders in English and Spanish. And yes, that drive-thru window is still operational.
All of your Mexican favorites are here: tacos (soft, crispy or the authentic Gallo Giro version), burritos, chalupas, flautas, tamales, tortas, etc. Juan says there are many more dishes that don't appear on the menu. Meat fillings come in many varieties as well, from the familiar beef, chicken and pork to Mexican delicacies like tongue. The prices are very easy on the pocketbook, with the most expensive things on the menu (the menudo, pozole, tortilla and birria soups) coming in at $6.50. Most entrees are $4.50 or less. Even more value can be found within the 10 different combination plates ($6.50 each), which come with rice and beans and your choice of main entr & eacute;e.
Choices galore. Yet there were only three of us, and so hard decisions had to be made. We tried the two-soft-taco combo, the chimichanga combo and a burrito (all are $4.50). When I received my taco combo, I realized I had meant to order the "Gallo Giro Tacos" combo featuring the more authentic open-faced presentation of meat, cilantro and lime on corn tortillas. When Juan picked up on this (it was my mistake, remember), he generously added a pair of complimentary Gallo Giro tacos to our order. I was grateful and relieved, as this was definitely the taste I was after: tender seasoned meat (one pork, one beef) in delicate white corn tortillas with a squirt of lime and a drizzle of freshly made hot sauce. Yes. The ground beef/cheddar/lettuce-filled soft tacos were good too -- but man, nothing compares to the real thing.
Leah quite enjoyed her chimi as well. It came complete with a heap of rice and a nice puddle of refried beans, both perfectly seasoned and far from spicy. The chimichanga was authentic -- a thick layer of tortilla, crispy on the outside, thick and chewy the deeper you went. Insofar as the encasing of the chimichanga is the fundamental difference between it and, say, a burrito, this one was perfect. It was chewy, flavorful and lightly fried to give it that extra crispness that fried-food freaks like me crave. Inside was a filling of tender shredded chicken, cheese and beans with vegetables scattered here and there. It was hefty, but because it was only lightly fried, it didn't fill her up to the gross proportions that a fast-food chimi might.
Joel could not stop talking about his $1.50 horchata beverage ("Perhaps the smoothest and richest I've ever tasted."). A soothing mix of rice milk and cinnamon, horchata is a staple at Southern California taquerias but a rarity in the Inland Northwest. Yet there's nothing quite like it for putting out the oral fires started by a good whopping burrito. He also had praise for his carne asada burrito, a big fat muthah dusted with cheese and bathed in a rich red enchilada sauce. It was nicely balanced between chewy and wet. A little mild, maybe, but that was easily remedied with the fine selection of hot sauces.
El Gallo Giro is fast food in the only way you want food to be fast -- that is, rapidly prepared. You sacrifice nothing in terms of quality or authenticity. Besides, this is a Mexican dining experience you'll be happy to maketime for.