King of the Drive-Thrus

If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, well, then, it must be a duck. This rule, however, does not apply to El Rey, a terrific Cuban/Mexican restaurant masquerading as a fast-food joint. Sure, you eat with plastic utensils, and the food comes in wax-paper-lined plastic baskets on red plastic cafeteria trays. And yes, the restaurant is located inside an old KFC, and you can order at a drive-thru window. And sure, the food arrives fast -- very fast. But trust me: This is anything but fast food. This stuff has soul. And flavor. Lots of flavor.

Start with the chicken tortilla soup ($4.50 for a large bowl, and you don't want to order any less). If you arrive before the lunch or dinner rush, it may not be ready; it's worth calling to check. Roast chicken, cheese, tomato, avocado, corn and tortilla strips are combined with a rich chicken broth sharply flavored with chilies and lime. Absolutely fabulous.

You'll see the beginnings of that soup as soon as you walk into the restaurant: a huge old-fashioned rotisserie roasting beautiful golden-skinned chickens ($6.50 for a whole chicken, $4.75 for a half as a platter with rice and beans). That chicken also turns up in sandwiches, tacos and burritos -- and also stands alone quite well, thank you. The plump, long-marinated birds are juicy and well seasoned, with a crisp skin reminiscent of Peking duck. Good accompaniments, as well: nicely flavored Mexican rice with good-sized chunks of carrot and terrific, deeply spiced refried beans.

The chicken puts in one of its appearances in the Hot Acapulco Sandwich ($3.50). Cuban bread (similar to good French bread) is smeared with chipotle paste, piled high with shredded chicken and Swiss cheese, and toasted in a plancha, similar to a waffle pan, until the bread is warm and crisp and the cheese has melted slightly. A great combination of flavors.

You'd expect a Cuban restaurant to serve a good Cuban sandwich, and in the case of El Rey you'd be right. The Cuban bread is filled with marinated, slow-roasted pork, sweet ham, Swiss cheese and pickles, then toasted in the plancha. Even better, though, is El Rey's steak sandwich ($3.99). Slices of meat are marinated and spiced before being quickly grilled with lots of sweet onion then toasted on Cuban bread with Swiss cheese. Consider it a Philly cheese steak sandwich with oomph.

Equally good is the other category of sandwiches called tortas, served on soft round rolls known as bolillos. My personal favorite is the Milanesa ($3.75), beef cutlets pounded to the thinness of a dime, seasoned and breaded and fried until crisp, then loaded onto the roll with cool lettuce, tomatoes and avocado: highly delicious. Almost as good is a new sandwich, the Torta Diablo ($3.50). Served cold, its slices of sweet ham, avocado and Swiss cheese are jolted with a sneaky jalapeno sauce.

I can also recommend the beef fajitas, available as tacos ($1.25 each) or as a platter ($4.50). The well-marinated and grilled beef is served on the platter with especially delicious charro beans, whole pintos in a thin, spicy sauce.

You can order interesting fruit juices -- try the cantaloupe ($1.25) -- but coffee caps the meal perfectly. Available in a multitude of sizes and variations (75 cents and up, including espressos, mochas and lattes), El Rey's espresso drinks are rich, pure, aromatic and strong -- and are even available at the drive-thru window. Is this a great country or what?

El Rey, 910 Shepherd, (713)802-9145.


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