By Kate and Stephen
We love El Rey (1031 E. Fairview Ave).
We love the giant just-salty-enough bowls of guacamole, the tremendous array of vegetarian options, and the thoughtful attention to buying local and sustainable produce, meats, and seafood. Also there’s the massive beer list (though we’re not big high gravity beer snobs), the delicious sangria, and the margaritas that taste like actual drinks with alcohol in them.
We love that they put on special events, often involving delicious vegetarian “sausages” or migas or special and exotic beers for tasting. There’s ample outdoor seating, either on the Fairview-side patios or on the shady western veranda. Get a Pimm’s Cup and a portion of queso for dipping while you wait for the tempeh fajitas or the spinach and red onion enchiladas to arrive. Chances are you’ll see people you know walking by on the street. Or you can sit inside in a plush red booth, drinking your glass of wine in the dim, lush and just a little bit seedy ambiance as you await the arrival of some genuinely hot salsa and a massive burrito.
So, we love all of it from the big-city menu options to the small-town feel. What we don’t love as much is the price. Every time we go to El Rey we end up with a bill that hovers around $60. And that’s with one drink each (the cheaper ones, not the $7 glasses of wine or the high end $14 beers), one appetizer and two entrees. Not exactly a major feast (though we never leave hungry and usually leave with leftovers). Perhaps this is a small price to pay to eat at what we think is Montgomery’s best restaurant. And maybe it’s a small price to pay for what El Rey adds to Midtown – in summer, a touch of jasmine-scented, back-beat infused, locally grown food cooked with soul; in winter, a cozy bowl of soup and a spicy reminder that there’s no need for feuding between your conscience and your tastebuds.
Because we love it, we go as often as our modest incomes will allow. We’ve eaten just about everything on the menu (that is, everything that’s vegetarian or seafood-focused). Special accolades go to the olives ($3.50) served as an appetizer. It’s surprisingly hard to get good olives in this town, and the harissa served as a dipping sauce is a masterful decision. We also love the enchiladas. Of the burritos, we generally prefer the Cali (beans, veggies, and spinach) with tempeh added, but sometimes we do find it hard to conscience paying more than ten bucks for a burrito we can make at home for a few dollars. Still, they are darn good. The spinach salad with tempeh makes a great dinner on a hot day, but we’re not fully sold on their chipotle lime vinaigrette. Last time it was a fraction too oily for our taste.
El Rey has recently changed its menu (see it here), and this prompted us to try the grilled fish platter on a recent visit. It was spectacular. It might be the single best dish we’ve ordered at any restaurant in the Montgomery area, rivaling similar dishes we’ve eaten at places around the country (like Santa Monica’s Border Grill). The fish was grilled perfectly, reaching a spicy food nirvana when paired with any of the various relishes dotted around the plate. The black beans were smoky, the roasted sweet potatoes were just browned around the edges hinting of chili and salt, and there was enough left over for a great lunch the next day. It was a seafood kind of night – we also had a shrimp taco, which probably wasn’t made with Gulf shrimp (that day El Rey’s newsletter had told us that they were switching to other sources for shrimp) but was still mouth-watering.
We’ve only lived in Montgomery for less than two years, but already we see El Rey as an old friend. The prices are high, but it cannot be denied that you’re paying for the highest in quality. We frequently loathe corporations, but readily signed up to be on El Rey’s e-mail list-serv. They are great corporate citizens, providing updates to customers on the effects of the Gulf oil spill on their access to seafood, while encouraging people to use the city-sponsored entertainment mass transit options. They are the only place in town we have ever seen that tries to promote food artisans and local brewers, while keeping festivals fun. They maintain a hip edge without being exclusionary and snooty. They should be a model for other restaurants around the state and nation because there are plenty of places that try to have a hip vibe and serve quality food, but just can’t seem to get it right. El Rey calls itself a “burrito lounge,” but really it’s a cornerstone of our Midtown community and we’re lucky to have them.
Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a dog, a cat, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.