Restaurant Review - El Tesoro: Family affair

Laid back Tex-Mex dining in Decatur

There's a new fight a-brewin'. After years of arguing about tips, cuisine authenticity and the minutiae of restaurant etiquette, these days the most controversial dining topic one can raise is children. On message boards, blogs and in online-articles comments, people are outraged about small beings and their infiltration of our eating establishments. Anti-child sentiment is at an all-time high.

It's so high, in fact, that it has eclipsed any rational discussion on El Tesoro, the new Mexican eatery in Decatur run by some of the same folks who own East Atlanta's Cantina La Casita. El Tesoro is located in a big, old house, and in what strikes me as a stroke of genius, it has a large fenced-in lawn where children can run around unrestricted by the "sit still!" drudgery of a dining table.

Decatur parents have flocked to the place. According to the comments on our website, the result is a screaming disaster. According to my experiences, it's family dining at its most relaxed. I encountered no screeching, food-flinging madness, just a couple of kids who were happy to have some room to run around, away from tables and other diners. So consider yourself warned: If children offend you in general, this might be a place to avoid.

But avoidance would be a pity, because El Tesoro serves some good Mexican and Tex-Mex food at neighborhood-friendly prices.

The cooks responsible for La Casita's food designed El Tesoro's menu, and while there's a lot of crossover, El Tesoro offers a broader selection. The appetizers list is full of nibbles and accompaniments that can make a fun meal, especially tossed back with a basket of chips and a pitcher of margaritas. A recent octopus ceviche (the selection changes daily) was pleasantly toothsome, exhibiting just the right amount of acid, heat and sweetness. Gooey fried plantains with sour cream form an addictive caramelized sweet and savory combination. Empanadas have the most wonderfully crispy, oily exteriors, which give way to the filling of the day, such as spinach and goat cheese.

Tamales emerge steaming from their corn husks, billowing the scent of fresh masa. Soft and perfectly seasoned, they are the best reason to come to El Tesoro. The sopes de pato, masa formed into cakes and topped with shredded duck and refried beans, are advertised as "crispy" but in reality were chewy and hard to eat.

Certain appetizers, such as the pickled chipotles and the intensely spicy mushroom medley, work better as accompaniments to larger dishes, or as a way to spruce up a plate of tacos. Not that the tacos need much sprucing, especially if you order a selection of salsas. The tres hongos taco combines mushrooms, squash and corn huitlacoche, for a musky and intensely savory few bites.

Entrees can be fun, but there's less authenticity and variety here, and more standard Tex-Mex fare such as huge burritos and taco salads. The tender duck braised in orange juice doesn't exhibit much orange flavor, but is a nice change from mounds of ground beef. Green salsa coats the chilaquiles, and the acid is a little overpowering – I much prefer the depth of a red salsa for this dish. The lemony broth bathing the albondigas (pork meatballs) was also a little overwhelming, but my dish lacked the tortillas that were supposed to be there, which would have added a calming note.

Like La Casita, quality can vary depending on the day. One night, the enchiladas ooze freshness, their red salsa spicy and savory, the tortillas soft and redolent of corn, and the interiors a goopy mix of goodness. Another night, ingredients taste stale and dry. The rate of success seems slightly higher here than at La Casita, and the larger, more ambitious menu is likely to hold your interest through multiple visits.

Service can still be wildly uneven. Staffing problems are obvious, and on some nights confusion reigns. The old house is made up of many smaller rooms, and it isn't uncommon for a food runner to enter with a dish and ask the crowd whose order it is. Drinks take too long, and extra requests (share plates, or those missing tortillas for instance) never materialize. "We were supposed to have five servers tonight," a manager said to my table one night in apology, "but only two showed up." Indeed, it seems like a question of overload rather than incompetence, but the owners need to get their staffing issues sorted out pronto.

Despite the unevenness of some aspects of El Tesoro, low prices, good margaritas and great tamales are likely to win out in the end. While the kid haters stomp and fume, the rest of us will try to enjoy family dining at its most relaxed.