El Potro: Pooler's First Mexican Restaurant
Arnauldo Camarena, designated owner of the El Potro Restaurant in Pooler, hails from the little town of Jesus-Maria near the great city of Guadalajara, The Pearl of the West, in the state of Jalisco, in central Mexico. The man really knows Mexican food from the inside out, building up his experience from many years on the Texas-Mexico border learning how to combine the tastes of his native country with the flavors of the American west in such a way as to lure those who love Latin food-- but who may be a little intimidated with trying something new. Give them the tacos and quesadillas they want, but make available a little something different, make sure the ingredients are fresh and the prices are reasonable, that the servers take your order with a smile.
The restaurant business isn’t an easy path, but if you love what you do and are willing to extend yourself to pay attention to what your customers like and don’t like, then you may find yourself an unqualified success. That seems to be the case at El Potro, where happy crowds of diners fill his restaurant, and families, groups of friends and party-goers gather to sample his cuisine week after week.
When he moved to the Southeast in 1988 with his family, he was hired as cook at the original El Potro in Savannah, and learned that there are definitely regional differences in what Americans expect in a good Mexican place?perhaps southerners expect a little less spice in their food, or maybe they prefer their chimichangas any day over a burrito, but Arnauldo keeps track of his customers tastes and preferences and has designed a menu just right for area.
I went to El Potro about a year or so after it first opened in April of 1993 because I heard they had good Margaritas and wings. Well, the margaritas were tasty indeed, with a good ‘bite’ to them, however the food left me cold; I felt as if they were probably still new to the area and hadn’t smoothed out the rough edges yet. A couple more visits did not change my opinion, however, in the last few years I’ve had friends from Pooler who swore by the good food there, and so I decided to try it again. Now, some folks may question that, but I really enjoy Latin cuisine and, having worked in restaurants at all levels for many years, I am aware that even a good restaurant can have bad days. I’m not one to completely write off a place, unless there is a shockingly bad food or service?if you can find something you like about it, be it the food, décor, prices, or the good-looking servers, wait a while then give them another chance. When I got an invite from a good friend to join her for dinner, I was eager to give it another try. I and my friends (from Peru, Panama and Columbia) had a great time there that evening and the food showed itself to be vastly improved?for the most part.
I can get tired of the old stand-bys: tacos, burritos, chimichangas, fajitas and such?even though I do like them, I usually go for something from the Specials menu because that is where many restaurants tuck away their more authentic dishes. This time it was Chicken Veracruz, and this Special is where El Potro really grabbed my attention with its flavor and freshness: Chicken breast filets grilled with onions and shrimp, served with rice, beans and Mexican salad (usually lettuce, tomato, maybe onion, and guacamole?I always like to add fresh cilantro to it at table, with a squeeze of lime juice). This dish is served with flour tortillas, but I encourage you to ask for corn tortillas instead?why? Because the taste is more intense and authentic. The tortillas come rolled up in aluminum foil, very hot?take one and spread it with beans, meat, salad or whatever you order, and roll it up tight to enjoy?the distinctive corn flavor compliments all the dishes beautifully. The beans here are the usual frijoles, but they give you plenty and use a light hand on the queso sauce, which I like?some places seem to cover everything on the plate with this white sauce , which makes me wonder, What are they trying to hide? The frijoles were plentiful and well-cooked, but the rice was just so-so. I also ordered the tamal as a side dish?and wow! This is another indicator of the quality of a Mexican restaurant and El Potro passed with flying colors! The tamal was big, firm, moist and tender, with a delicious sauce that did not overwhelm the flavor of the dish. So many times I’ve been disappointed by restaurant tamales because they have to be made ahead of time and when re-heated, they often come out dry, burnt and crumbling?this tamal was a wonderful exception! It is also big enough, along with chips and salsa or perhaps a salad, to serve as a filling and delicious lunch. Dessert was a delicate flan served in a pool of golden caramel syrup?but if you want something more decadent, go for the fried ice-cream, churros or the banana chimichanga. There is a Kid’s Menu for smaller family members with Mexican foods as well as chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers and fries, for finicky eaters, as well as a special section of Vegetarian dishes.
I believe this restaurant’s menu reflects the simpler tastes of the city in which it resides, with well-prepared, familiar foods : nachos, tacos, burritos and fajitas with the usual beef, chicken, pork or shrimp; enchiladas and quesadillas, and I would like to see more than one type of soup?though their chicken soup is quite good and comes in a BIG bowl. The owner mentioned he liked the traditional Guadalajaran Birria, made of beef or lamb baked in a sauce with fragrant spices, hot peppers, and chopped onion; or perhaps Pozole, a richly flavored, hearty soup made with yellow and white hominy corn and juicy pork, cooked for hours and served with lime, onions, cilantro and fresh tomato.
Talking with Arnauldo, I was happy that he also expressed a wish to introduce some of the wonderful dishes of his native state to both American and Latino residents of Pooler. Jalisco has some great choices, not only Birria and Pozole, but the incredible Tortas Ahogadas: plump, salty white rolls stuffed with tender, BBQ pork and then dipped in a special spicy red sauce?it’s definitely a knife and fork kind of dish, though it looks like a sandwich. We also discussed the possibility of Menudo?though some Americans may be a little squeamish over the main ingredient, tripe, let me assure you that the meat is cut in small pieces and cooked until it melts in your mouth, with lime, peppers, onions, tomatoes and oregano?often served with soft white rolls to dip into the broth and is just divinely flavored, savory and a wonderful treat summer or winter. If you feel curious about these authentic dishes or others?
Arnauldo is passionate about good barbacoa (chicken pieces marinated in a special spicy BBQ sauce, individually wrapped in foil packets, then cooked in a steamer until falling-apart-tender)?please let him know that you would be willing to try them, even if they are only offered on the weekends. You may find that special dish that will replace the usual tacos or quesadilla and give you another good reason to visit El Potro!