We miss sitting down at a real restaurant. We don’t mind takeout, we love it, but sometimes we really do want a regular, sit-down experience. Don’t worry, we’re not one of those people who will start bullying restaurants to open back up – we know this lockdown is for a good reason – but it does make us sad. If we’re struggling with this, imagine how the restaurants themselves are handling it! The answer is, for the most part, “poorly.” Restaurants that simply do not work as take-out joints have been forced to transition, and it’s not going smoothly for most places. This can be a problem with multiple factors: the food isn’t suited for take-out, they don’t have any ecosystem in place for take-out or delivery, or the owners don’t want to work out the business plan for transition.
One restaurant we’ve been wanting to go to, El Loro in Bloomington, is a sit-down Mexican place that has made the transition to take out. Have they managed to crack the code? Hit the jump to find out.
We had been looking forward to eating at El Loro since before the quarantine hit, so when it became clear that restaurants were no longer going to be publicly available, we dragged our heels on it for a while. Eventually, on an overcast day, we decided to bite the bullet and see how their take-out would be. We ordered by phone for a burritos rancheros platter ($11.99) and some “supreme” enchiladas ($10.99). It was here the weirdness began: they asked for our card details over the phone. This was something we’d never experienced before while ordering take-out. There was no place before this that wouldn’t let us pay in person, even when we were ordering online. Regardless, this didn’t strike us as suspicious, so we just gave the details and went on our merry way.
Once we got to the actual restaurant, the reason for this weirdness became clear. In the goal of social distancing, El Loro was placing its pick-up orders on a table right in the vestibule! This made us immensely anxious, for some reason. Nothing was wrong with our order, but what was to stop somebody from walking in, grabbing every order on the table, and running? Maybe there was a person positioned just out of sight to prevent this from happening, but they’d have to hurdle over a table blocking the only immediate exit if they were going to give chase.
With the food picked up, the weather was turning into rain quickly, and we drove to a nearby park to enjoy our meal. It was starting to pour something serious by the time we got there; we had planned in the first place to picnic in the gazebo, so eating in the car it had to be. This is something we normally like to do, especially when it’s raining, but El Loro’s food really was not suited for this task.
For starters, the food was served in flimsy, round foil tins, making it particularly hard for us to balance on our laps. As the foods we ordered were richly sauced, the slightest mistake would have resulted in a car floor coated in gunk. We realized, at this point, just how important plates are for restaurants. We’re no stranger to eating food off of impromptu surfaces, but Tex-Mex especially is best suited to being kept on a hot plate, not steaming itself in a cold tin – the smell, the texture, the taste, the whole experience is tied together by the surface it’s eaten on. Restaurant food is designed for the environment it’s eaten in. Just in the 5-minute drive to the park, our food was already Different, changed in a way that we never had a reason to think about before.
We miss eating at restaurants a lot. We didn’t even do it particularly often, and we weren’t even that fond of it in the first place. But now that it’s not an option for us whatsoever, we miss it more than ever.
Regardless, we were here for the food, and the food was amazing. The burritos rancheros were loaded with shredded beef and smothered with sour cream, tomatoes, and fresh lettuce. The beef was seasoned so powerfully, it was almost a shock to experience so much flavor. It was tangy and rich, coating the mouth with a powerful tang of tomato and… well, something we couldn’t identify – probably jalapeño? We have a hard time finding well-prepared jalapeños, especially given the amount of fast-food we eat. Paula isn’t particularly fond of them due to their earthy and dirty flavor, and their tendency to be paired with massive amounts of cheese sauce. These were, without a doubt, the best ones they’ve ever tasted.
But we’d like to give special notice to the rice and beans served as this dish’s side. Good things come in humble packages, because these were the best beans and rice ever. The beans were cooked down into a liquid that dissipated across the entire dish, adding fantastic beany flavor wherever it went. The yellow Mexican rice was perfectly tender and loaded with sumptuous flavor.
The enchiladas were similarly good. It came with four different kinds: chicken, beef, bean and cheese. Of these four, the cheese one was the best, loaded with creamy cheese that paired with the enchilada sauce perfectly. The beans enchilada was second best; when we ordered this menu items, we were actually under the impression that this dish would come with three enchiladas, so finding a fourth one was a pleasant surprise! The chicken and beef were both “okay.” The beef one was superior to the chicken one, as the beef was well-seasoned and spicy. With the chicken enchilada, the meat of the chicken didn’t absorb the seasoning as well as the beef, leaving it feeling a little bland.
It’s a powerful testament to the quality of this food that it was still a fun and delicious experience eating it in a car. The food got cold quickly, because we were eating it in a cold car out of tinfoil dishes with plastic utensils, and good Mexican food benefits massively from being served as hot and fresh as possible. It’s not the same without the hot smells of the dish rising up to meet you, the warmth of the tortillas, being able to eat it right off of a warmed plate… Don’t get us wrong, El Loro’s food is fantastic, and we feel like having to eat it in these conditions does it a disservice. There’s nothing here we can really criticize, because all of the flaws are of our own making.
Speaking of making conditions harder on ourselves, we ended up taking the complimentary chips and salsa home with us. The chips were served warm at the restaurant, but were naturally stone cold by the time we made it back. That’s nothing a quick zap in the microwave couldn’t fix, and we were free to enjoy the crispy chips and delicious, cilantro-loaded salsa that came with it.
We can’t help but compare El Loro’s methods of handling the quarantine restrictions to the Andale, whom we discussed in a previous article. We don’t want to seem like we’re making the Mexican restaurants in our area fight, but we feel like the Andale’s food is better suited for takeout in the first place, giving it a substantial edge in this crisis scenario. What other small sit-down restaurants are suffering in this way? Is El Tequila, Will’s favorite Mexican restaurant from his childhood, struggling to stay on? How much money is the takeout container companies of the world standing to make from this crisis?
Other websites have covered the conversation about “authenticity” in cuisine better than we could ever hope to, so we’re not going to get into it here. But we do feel like the Andale’s food is better for what it is: quick-service, portable, and just plain tasty. Plus the Andale has a grocery store attached to it! The prices between both restaurants are about the same, but there is definitely way more variety available at El Loro, for better or for worse.
We really, really wish we didn’t have to review El Loro like this. We want to go back there very badly when the situation finally simmers down, and actually enjoy a meal fresh and hot the way it was intended to be eaten. We’ll go back there one day, we can only hope. This situation has to end eventually.