The second iteration of the Coyote howls into west Little Rock.
Photo by Arshia Khan
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My Spanish has never been very good. So, as I’ve been hearing people tell me for the past three years that Santo Coyote out of North Little Rock means good Mexican food, I’ve never been disinclined to agree, though I’ve never made it around to check it out for myself.
Thankfully, the opening of a Little Rock branch offered a prime opportunity to test the translation. Of course, the operation, originally founded in Atlanta more than 50 years ago, decided to open up its south-of-the-river arm out in west Little Rock, as so many places do these days. In this case, the chosen locale was Pleasant Ridge West, which is (unsurprisingly) located just west of the Pleasant Ridge proper. For those who struggle with compass points, it’s just behind Carino’s off Highway 10.
Unlike the original standalone location, the new cantina is located in a shopping center, but with corner real estate used to great effect (more on that later). Being just off the main road — and with a traffic signal there to ease access — getting in and out isn’t bad. Parking could be, as it’s a busy center, but I didn’t struggle in any of my visits.
Now, about that interior. Seating in the single dining room is divided by the bar (the place self-identifies as both restaurant and tequila bar). To the right from the entrance, on the interior wall, navy walls and dark woods create an intimate atmosphere brightened only by dim starburst lamps. But in bright contrast (literally), the other side of the bar is on the exterior wall, which is all windows. So seating there is airy and lively. Ditto for the expansive patio, which might get used if this summer will ever give us a break. So what I’m getting at here is that two very different atmospheres exist in the same restaurant, and neither feels at odds with the other. It’s a neat effect, giving great context for a variety of visits, from happy-hour parties to romantic dinners.
And what, pray tell, might those dinners look like? Well, the usual Mexican and not the usual Mexican, actually. By that I mean the menu headings probably won’t surprise anyone. There’s a section for burritos, for enchiladas, for chimchangas, fajitas, tacos. Undoubtedly, if you’ve ever been in any Mexican place ever, you’re on familiar ground here.
But by page 3, the menu starts to take a different course. Here things are divided by primary meat of the dish, so your headings are steak and beef, chicken and seafood. Here is where you find the details that start to set Santo apart. You’ve got things like the pollo tropical, which is chicken cooked with poblano peppers, onions, mushrooms and ... pineapple? Yes. Or you’ve got the “famous molcajete,” a mix of steak, sausage and chicken with onions, cheese and green tomatillo sauce. Those are interspersed with familiar preparations like steaks and even a hamburger. The seafood selection takes a build-your-own approach, offering a choice of fish, shrimp or scallops in any one of six styles.
For the hasty crowd, there are the pronto lunches, and again this should all sound familiar, mixes of tacos and burritos in various lunch specials. And a Speedy Gonzales. Everyone has a Speedy Gonzales. I’m almost convinced it’s a health-department-codes requirement for a license to serve Mexican food. But, alongside that, there are some inventive choices, including a chicken chipotle wrap and a seafood wrap, as well as a club for those who go to a Mexican restaurant for a club sandwich. There’s gotta be one, right?
But that’s the thing here. Santo dos doesn’t depart much from the formula that made Santo uno win a lot of acclaim in that it caters to a lot of tastes, whether adventurous or timid. And here that philosophy is reflected in both the look of the place and the variety of the food. Nice.
So, if Santo Coyote means good Mexican, mas Santo can only mean lucky us.
Pollo gourmet ($11)
First, a note on the price. The menu at table listed a dollar higher than what was listed online. But the receipt confirms the lower price. Particularly because this was a massive dish, a tender and juicy grilled chicken breast folded over greens, mushrooms and onions topped in ham and cheese. Those toppings come in small measure compared to the rest, but enough to add another layer of flavor to an already wonderful mix. Chosen sides were refried beans among the best I’ve had (but not the best) and chipotle mashed potatoes. I will get these potatoes with everything I ever order here, too. Spicy and infused with chipotle smokiness, they were sensational as long as you don’t mind a touch of heat. (sw)
Cancun trio sea wrap ($8.95)
It’s hard not to fall in love with the menu description here, and the item delivers on all points. It’s a grilled seafood mix of shrimp, tilapia and scallops with pico and greens tossed in a tartar roasted poblano dressing all wrapped in a spinach tortilla. The tilapia is mild, the shrimp plump, and the scallops add another layer of texture beyond greens and pico. It’s all got that char-grilled flavor that’s set against the tang of the dressing. I’d almost prefer the plain flour tortillas, which look and taste house-made, to the spinach just because they’re so good, but the green wrap has its place. (sw)
Veggie Omelet Ranchero ($6.99)
The dishes at Santo Coyote are the size of my head. If I had to guess how many eggs were used in the making of the veggie omelet ranchero, I’d say at least four. I’d also say at least an entire zucchini, half a squash, and a heaping handful of other vegetables and a slathering of cheese went into it. Not to mention the hefty bowl of savory, bacon-y beans and Spanish rice. What you’d think is a healthier option ends up being pretty siesta-inducing. But the taste is worth the lethargy. (sb)
IN A NUTSHELL
The new Santo Coyote in west Little Rock bills itself as a Mexican restaurant and tequila bar and has a menu similar to the first location in North Little Rock. The new Coyote has the usual Mexican fare — fajitas, tacos, burritos — as well as more exotic (or maybe just authentic) fare like chipotle and pineapple chicken.
Location: 11610 Pleasant Ridge Road, Little Rock
Phone: (501) 225-1300
Hours: 11 a.m. -10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m. -11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Alcohol: Full bar