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Mi Parrilla
Out of a possible five
Ryan DuVall
The Primavera at Mi Parrilla.

Mi Parrilla refreshes classic fare

It was shiny and new, but there was something very familiar about Mi Parrilla on Clinton Street.

The black-and-white Mexican street-scene photographs were still there – especially the cute one of the baby sitting in a cart being towed by a chicken – and the fresh, authentic flavors at this new Mexican restaurant harkened back to El Burrito Colonial, which called the spot home from 2006 until last year.

And as my first meal came to an end and I asked my server about the place, the reason became clear. Mi Parrilla is owned and operated by Efren Quintana, who also ran El Burrito Colonial.

Shortly after El Burrito closed, the building was rented out and became home to a short-lived taqueria. It sat vacant for a while before undergoing a facelift inside and out, so it looks nothing like the funky little orange building it once was. A wall was taken down inside to open up the dining area, and new floor tiles, new paint, new furniture and attractive wooden beams across the ceiling have transformed it from a hole-in-the-wall to a nearly upscale gem. Outside, it is more brick than orange now with the exterior walls covered halfway by them and brick pillars that support a mock patio overhang with the restaurant’s name emblazoned on it. It now looks like a corporate-owned chain.

The menu, however, held true to the original, and that was a good thing.

The Huaraches Ranchero best exemplified what Mi Parrilla is all about. Huaraches are big, thick, freshly made tortillas that are crisp outside and chewy inside. The Ranchero was topped with beans, carne asada steak, pork, chorizo, cheese, onions, cilantro and three big wedges of fresh avocado. It was sort of like a Mexican flatbread pizza.

The cilantro added a fresh, floral note to the pork and steak, both of which were tender and juicy but had crispy bits along the outside from the griddle. There was just the right amount of mozzarella cheese covering it and was flanked by a little side salad and a ramekin of sour cream to add to my liking. It would be great on its own as a meal, but I ordered mine as an appetizer.

The cup of the tortilla soup was an appetizer worth having again. Also offered by the bowl, Mi Parrilla’s soup was as attractive as it was tasty with four crispy tortilla strips jutting out of the cup, which was covered with melted bi-colored cheese. The reddish-brown broth had a pronounced roasted chicken flavor and had chunks of chicken, carrot, celery, onion, potatoes and cilantro in it. It was not spicy enough for me, but still had a little zip. A little salsa livened it up and made it perfect.

Mi Parrilla’s salsa was pretty standard, but the thick, crunchy, nicely salted tortilla chips kept me going back. If you ask, a darker, spicier salsa will be provided in a squeeze bottle, but be careful because it is lethal.

I only added a couple of squirts of that hot salsa to the other soup I tried, which was an entrée. The Caldo de Mariscos (seafood soup) was a huge bowl of the same broth filled with wide strips of thinly sliced imitation crab, shrimp, octopus and one whole tilapia fillet. It also had the same vegetables as the tortilla soup and chopped onions, cilantro and fresh lime wedges on the side as garnish. It was a real belly-warmer with the super sweet fake crab playing well with the spicy broth. The only knocks were that the tails of the shrimp had not been removed, which made it a little cumbersome, and the octopus was overcooked, which is hard to avoid in a big hot bowl of broth.

The most unique find at Mi Parrilla was its spin on an Italian classic, the Primavera. Spanish rice was the base instead of pasta and it was topped with steak, shrimp and chicken grilled fajita-style with onions, tomatoes and green and red peppers, but it also included broccoli florets. The veggies were snap-fresh and enjoyable, the combination worked quite well and it sounded like a somewhat healthy option until you go to that part of the menu that said “smothered with cheese.” That made it even better, of course, but I am sure you could get it sans cheese if you were seeking something healthier.

The only dish that really fell flat was the Pollo Colonial. The sautéed chicken that was the base of this dish was cut into chunks and was a bit dry and overcooked. It, too, was “smothered with cheese” – this time a loose white sauce – and enchilada sauce, and served over rice. The sauce was so runny it basically ran off the chicken and settled into the rice below, which made it cheesy and delicious but didn’t help the dry chicken. The sauce was too thick, kind of like gravy, and it had so little spice it tasted like gravy.

Getting back to the rice, it and the refried beans at Mi Parrilla were pleasant surprises. Often an afterthought at Mexican eateries, the slightly orange rice was al dente and had a pronounced Mexican chile-tomato flavor. The beans were super rich and had more flavor than about any other beans I have had in this area. After asking my server, I was told Mi Parrilla cooks its refried beans with pork fat. I loved the fatty, porky beans, but vegetarian beans are also available on request.

The desserts were also nice surprises. The fried ice cream was rolled in corn flakes, which is usually a negative for me because those flakes are often stale and chewy. But Mi Parrilla’s exterior was crispy, sugary-sweet and held up perfectly even when drenched in hot fudge. Its sugared tortilla shell was also nice – crispy outside but tender inside, almost like an elephant ear.

The flan was also worth having again as it was thick, rich and eggy with beautiful caramel poured over it that was not overly sweet.

The service was pretty sweet, too. I was tended to promptly, there were no significant lulls and at least one server was eager to make recommendations, including that delicious seafood soup.

Restaurant: Mi Parrilla

Address: 3422 N. Clinton St.

Phone: 471-0420

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Mexican

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Beer and wine

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Huararches Colonial ($8.49), tortilla soup ($1.75 cup; $3.49 bowl), seafood soup ($12.95), Primavera ($13.99), Pollo Colonial ($9.99), flan ($2.99), fried ice cream ($3.50)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.