DEFCON Dining: El Gran Malo

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On a recent Tuesday night -- our late night, the one on which after-school activities all but force us to dine out instead of cooking -- my youngest daughter said she'd rather go home and eat sandwiches than put on pants. She'd just gotten out of her gymnastics class, clad only in the bathing suit she wears in lieu of a leotard, and was not receptive to the suggestion that additional clothing would be required in a restaurant setting. I can't quite recall how we convinced her to clothe herself, but I'm reasonably sure it involved queso.

I've taken to a bit of strategy surrounding these late Tuesday dinners. With everyone so ready to just get somewhere and shove food in their faces after an extremely long day, I find that it's easier to get my way when it comes to where. Manipulative? Yes. Successful? Usually. It does backfire, typically when the willingness-to-crankiness ratio tilts in the wrong direction. There's a fine line, reasonably gauged by how strongly the wife and kids, respectively, react to the statements "They've got margaritas" and "You can have chips." El Gran Malo fills both of those requirements, and that's where we wound up.

I'd had El Gran Malo on the list for a while, but never got much traction with the suggestion. I think leading with "they've got all these crazy tequila infusions" was a poor strategy, making the kids think it had nothing to offer them, and making my wife fear the resulting insurrection. Reasonable fears, both. Fortunately, they were unfounded.

The other barrier was the parking situation. Namely, there isn't any. Or so I'd thought. On the few occasions on which dissent was not an issue, I'd approached from the east, down West 23rd, and turned back in fear of the no-parking signs lining the street. The scant few spots in front of the building never offered themselves to me, and I drove away in retreat. Through a confluence of chance, kismet and dining indecision, I finally bothered driving south down Ella, and turned into the (not really) hidden lot behind the building.

As we walked in, unsure of whether we would find the place more bar than restaurant and curious about the reception our party would receive should the latter prove out, my wife gave me a concerned sidelong glance. Directly in front of us sat a bar, the small adjoining dining room hidden from view. Fortunately, the staff reacted quickly, graciously ushering us into the dining room.

Festooned with strings of Christmas lights, the dining room was dimly lit but cheerful and, more important, interesting to my kids. The cabinet of curiosities housing tequila infusions of all manner called out to them like a siren's song, and they oohed and aahed over jars filled with colorful chiles and otherworldly tendrils of Buddha's Hand. The back-lit, red lacquered cabinet gave the display a dramatic appeal, and I was similarly fascinated. My wife immediately began plans to co-opt the look for an alcove in our house. If it means I will be encouraged to buy lots of tequila and play mad scientist, I'll be sure to send El Gran Malo a thank-you card and a few samples.

Those mysterious jars fixed in our minds, my wife and I both ordered infused-tequila cocktails, a fruity and spicy three-chile infused Bravado for me and a jammy strawberry margarita for her. The Bravado was a perfect balance of vegetal tequila, sweet and sour fruit, and an insistent heat that managed to blend perfectly with the other flavors rather than dominating. Though it was initially lush and inviting, the strawberry version proved too sweet for my taste after a few sips.

We've already decided that, next time around, we'll go with the flights option, each selecting three different infusions and forcing them to fight to the death. As for the kids, they couldn't stop giggling about the fact that their drinks came in beer-branded pint glasses. Jokes were made. We played along, feigning indignation and parental fury. The girls found themselves quite clever.

We found ourselves quite clever in recommending meals to the kids. More specifically, we found ourselves quite clever in recommending the plantain and black bean empanadas to our youngest, with whom we typically have to have a conversation regarding the unreasonableness of expecting every restaurant to honor her request for a couple of fried eggs. Never mind the fact that we later realized that El Gran Malo, with their "slap an egg on it! fried only!" offer, would almost certainly have indulged. Thankfully, empanadas hold an inexplicably high slot in her brief list of favored foods, and she loved the crisp-shelled versions here, though she flicked all of their crab topping over onto my plate.

Other standouts were the chicken tinga tacos, studded with pepitas and a deft crunch of shredded cabbage, and the tortilla soup our other daughter selected. The latter was even better for lunch the next day, the scant remainder fleshed out by a generous dollop of peanut butter. I've recommended that the restaurant consider that as an alternative menu version, so compelling was the nutty addition.

As we sipped and ate, we discussed the mural on the far wall. The kids got a kick out of that, too, calling out each newly discovered embellishment with excitedly shrill voices. Placated by their own infused tequila cocktails, the nearby tables didn't seem to mind at all, and we added one more place to our Tuesday-night list.

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