Itâ€™s hard to believe that it has been more than 20 years since we moved back to Louisville after a sojourn in New York City. This town has changed a lot in the past two decades, and certainly the Frankfort Avenue restaurant row has evolved almost beyond recognition.
â€œYouâ€™ll like Frankfort Avenue,â€ a friend told us as we packed the moving van to head west from Gotham. â€œThereâ€™s a great new place called the Irish Rover!â€ And she was right. Along with Deitrichâ€™s, which had been a pioneer in the neighborhood, and more recent arrivals Porcini and a local coffee shop that preceded Heine Brosâ€™ Crescent Hill branch, the avenue was looking pretty exciting.
And then in 1995 came El Mundo, and the â€œnewâ€ Frankfort Avenue was on its way. Add bustling Clifton, and the strip now houses at least 40 great local eateries and watering holes. Whatâ€™s more, I canâ€™t think of a single national chain restaurant among them, a locavore distinction that our friends over on Bardstown Road canâ€™t claim.
What I liked about El Mundo then, I like about El Mundo today: its fare is authentic Mexican, yet itâ€™s distinctly chef-driven, with creative touches in flavor and presentation that remind me of Chef Rick Baylessâ€™s iconic Frontera Grill in Chicago.
El Mundoâ€™s website links its lovably eclectic creativity to founding partner Bea Chamberlainâ€™s time in Mexico, California, Seattle and Denver, with no mention of Chicago; and theyâ€™d know. But as a big fan of Frontera, Iâ€™m going to stick with my sense that El Mundo makes a fine alternative for us in the Derby City.
The place has grown over the years, adding a table-service dining room and very popular seven-seat bar upstairs, a few tables on the sidewalk out front, and a small but popular seasonal patio out back.
The menu, expanded since the arrivale of Chef Mike Boyle, offers plenty of options, from vegetarian and vegan choices (unusual for a Mexican eatery) to hardcore carnivorous delights like beef-heart tacos, a frequent special.
Main dishes are $8.25 to $16.95 (for the bountiful sampler trio, the combo plate).
We started a recent visit with a favorite: a generous crock of black bean and chipotle dip ($5.50), a thick and comforting savory blend of tender black beans mashed with jack cheese, smoky-hot chipotle peppers and Dos Equis beer. Itâ€™s rich and meaty (although it contains no meat), and I could eat a lot of it with El Mundoâ€™s ultra-crisp chips.
But I wanted to save room for El Mundoâ€™s fish tacos, ($14.95 for dinner, $7.95 for a smaller lunch version). Itâ€™s distinctly different from the usual San Diego-style fried fish. This is a generous block of grilled Icelandic cod, perched on a bed of salad greens on pair of white-corn tortillas. Accompanied with beans and rice, the heft of the cod on the soft, tender tortillas makes this a knife-and-fork meal, not finger food.
Tamales ($9.50) are meatless at El Mundo: It starts with the usual soft, sensuous cornmeal tamale dough in a corn husk wrapper, but itâ€™s filled with meatless goodies: abundant crisp, sweet yellow corn, piquant poblano pepper and grilled onions, bound with Mexican cheese and accompanied with meat-free Mexican-style rice and beans.
With ice water and a tamarind-flavor Jarritos Mexican soft drink ($2.50), a hearty lunch for two came to $26.98, plus a $6 tip.