12/09/2005 — El Gallo Giro has achieved cult status.
Regulars often get dreamy-eyed when explaining the glory of "that incredible Mexican restaurant in downtown Kuna." They can't always remember the name, though.
El Gallo Giro, which means "fighting rooster" in Spanish, is a festive place with authentic Mexican fare, the kind of restaurant where the smoke from sizzling molcajetes and accordion-driven rancheros music fill the air.
Owner Enrique Contreras comes from Guanajuato in central Mexico. He is a consummate host, knowing the names and faces of many of his customers.
The friendly wait staff hustles about the brightly painted dining room replacing chips and salsa, and entertaining children who come in droves with their drooling parents. With the mere mention of a birthday, the staff bands together for a mariachi-style song, percussion instruments and howls included.
There is an equally festive El Gallo Giro in Garden City, yet Contreras does not own that location. It's operated by the Prado family, which used to own the Acapulco restaurant chain, where Contreras worked for 10 years. The two El Gallo Giros only share a name for recognition's sake.
The Kuna menu has the familiar Tex-Mex fare that people in the valley have come to expect. But upon closer inspection, you'll find authentic gems such as pollo en mole, pozole and torta sandwiches.
Seafood is given serious attention, too, with dishes representing both Pacific and Atlantic coastlines.
One night, after receiving cold Pacifico beers ($3), we enjoyed a parfait glass of campechana ($6.95) — tender octopus tentacles and bay shrimp splashed with a mixture of lime juice, garlic, diced tomato and cilantro.
Surprisingly, the seafood tasted coast-fresh, a rarity in the high desert.
We supplemented this appetizer with a large side of guacamole ($4), to go with our free tortilla chips and chunky red salsa.
Guacamole is good anytime of year, but it's especially appreciated in the dead of winter. El Gallo Giro smashes its avocadoes with citrus, tomato and garlic.
We were extremely happy with the pollo en mole ($8.45). On a large platter came toothsome slices of chicken breast and julienne onion stewed in a dark mole sauce redolent of dried chile pods and Mexican chocolate. Liberal amounts of cotija-sprinkled refritos and seasoned rice helped to soak up the residual sauce.
Tortas ($4.95) are an excellent pick here. In our case, a crusty telera roll (made at a local Mexican bakery) came stuffed with succulent pieces of grilled carne asada, pico de gallo, sliced avocado, shredded lettuce and crumbled cotija cheese.
Tortas are made with your choice of taco meat, like adobada, carnitas, chorizo or pollo. The a la carte tacos ($1) — simply laced with salsa verde, chopped onion and cilantro — are incredible, too.
We managed to save room for the dense flan ($2.95), a Mexican-style creamy custard crowned with dollops of whipped cream.
A few nights later, we went straight for a bowl of pozole ($6.95) and some fish tacos ($7.95) done up Baja-style, meaning breaded cod, shredded cabbage and pico de gallo got placed on soft flour tortillas. The sour cream sauce was rather bland, doing nothing to enhance the fish. Fresh lime wedges took care of that duty; so did the steaming pinto beans and Mexi-rice.
Pozole works wonderfully for a stuffed nose, and El Gallo Giro's piquant hominy soup is no exception. A deep bowl came teeming with golden hominy kernels and cubed pork loin in a chile-spiked tomato broth. Just like Vietnamese soup, a side dish of lime wedges, cilantro, shredded cabbage and radish was there for soup enhancement.
After discussing the nuances of beef tongue dishes with Contreras, we settled on the lengua en chile Colorado ($10.95), a sizzling molcajete (Aztecan-style lava rock vessel) packed with ultra-tender beef tongue in a garlicky and peppery tomato sauce. No doubt, Contreras runs a tight operation, and a friendly one at that. Plus the food is consistently great at this comfortable Kuna haunt.
James Patrick Kelly is The Idaho Statesman's restaurant critic. E-mail him at jpkfood@ earthlink.net.