Where: El Metate, 5922 Hixson Pike, 423-842-1400; 9322 Dayton Pike, Soddy-Daisy, 423-332-3190; 16952 Rankin Ave., Dunlap, Tenn., 423-949-6132.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Price range: $3.29 (bean or cheese dip) to $19.99 (double orders of fajitas).
Alcohol: Full bar.
When El Metate opened in the Publix shopping center on Hixson Pike more than a year ago, it quickly became my favorite Mexican restaurant in Chattanooga. The name refers to the stone Mexican women used to grind corn for flour, and the country's traditions are referenced in wall murals showing rural scenes and themes.
El Metate's menu also nods to tradition, including some lesser-known dishes along with the usual fajitas, burritos and enchiladas. With a friendly staff and family atmosphere, it's a warm and relaxed place for lunch or dinner.
El Metate's enormous menu includes well-known favorites, sometimes with a twist. Appetizers run from bean and cheese dips ($3.29, $5.29) to quesadillas ($9.49-$11.49) and seven kinds of nachos ($4.99-$7.99) There's a guacamole dip ($3.99), but there's also guacamole casero, forkable chunks of ripe avocado, tomatoes and flavorings ($4.49).
Mexican food fans will find much that's familiar on the menu. Most entrees are $8.99 to $13.99 for single orders and include traditional sides such as rice and beans, lettuce and tomato or avocado slices or guacamole.
Fajitas ($9.95-$11.99 for single) come in everything from the standard chicken or beef to beef ribs and Hawaiian-style, which adds pineapple.
Enchiladas, burritos and chimichangas come in a variety of meat and sauce combos, and the grilled offerings include steak, pork chops and chicken. From past visits, I know the carnitas and the carne asada are seasoned and cooked in delicious, traditional style.
If you're feeling adventurous, try the grilled cactus leaf that comes with the molcajete special - grilled chicken or beef in a stone bowl with tomatoes, onions and peppers, and choice of sauce. And El Metate is the only area restaurant I've been to that serves Mexican-style grilled liver and onions.
But what particularly sets El Metate's menu apart is its strong seafood section. Though only shrimp and tilapia are offered, they come in tacos, enchiladas, burritos or alone, with sauces from garlic to chipotle to tomatillo. The filet Veracruz ($10.99) is grilled tilapia with onions, mushrooms and jalapeno peppers, topped with salsa ranchera. The filet al Mojo de Ajo ($10.99) is marinated in garlic butter sauce.
Shrimp dishes include a variation on the traditional shrimp cocktail ($8.99, $10.99) - shrimp served in a glass with pico de gallo, sliced avocado and ketchup. Shrimp Diabla ($11.49) comes in a fiery chipotle sauce; shrimp enchiladas ($8.99) are topped with green sauce.
A kids menu offers burgers, chicken tenders and pizza along with Mexican choices for $3.99.
The order (for two): Chips and salsa, bean dip, Los Cabos Special and Arandas Special.
First to the table were chips and salsa. The chips were warm and fresh, the salsa bland, with little hint of seasoning other than garlic in the tomato base.
Bean dip ($3.29), refried beans with melted fundido cheese, was creamy and gooey, very tasty on the chips.
My Los Cabos Special ($11.99) was six shrimp and a tilapia fillet topped with hot-sweet chipotle and a dollop of melted white cheese. The fish and shrimp were seasoned and grilled before the sauce was added, so the flavors were distinct: spicy, sweet and flavorful. The plate came with rice, which I found bland (Mexican restaurant owners, how about perking up that dull side dish?) and a lettuce and tomato salad with avocado slices. The avocado was perfectly ripe and the lettuce was fresh, but there's not much good to say about a winter tomato.
My dining partner had the Arandas Special, layers of marinated and grilled sirloin and chicken topped with crumbled chorizo sausage. The stack was smothered in grilled onions and white cheese, with rice and refried beans on the side. The meats were moist, and the trio melded into a rich and flavorful mouthful.
Neither of us had room for dessert. That's a shame; the menu offers deep-fried cheesecake (Xango, $4.75) and fried ice cream ($3.99) along with the standard flan ($3.49).
In all my visits to El Metate, I can't remember poor or slow service. The wait staff is friendly and quick, and the managers walk through the room and chat with the diners. On this trip, the water glasses and chip bowl came out within seconds and the food was delivered promptly and hot. Our server kept an eye on our table and made sure we didn't run out of anything but wasn't hovering or obtrusive.
El Metate is in a storefront of the strip center in the Publix parking lot. It's simple outside and in, with a full bar to the left that has booths and tables and a long, booth-lined dining area to the right. The décor references the restaurant's ethnic heritage without being overstuffed or kitschy. Alongside the murals of Mexican scenes, ever-present televisions broadcast sports, and bouncy Mexican music plays over speakers. A patio off the bar holds several tables for dining or sipping in good weather.
I started by saying El Metate is my favorite Mexican restaurant in Chattanooga. Try it yourself; maybe it'll become your favorite, too.