Although far north Fort Worth and Keller have their share of Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants, most of them are a bit of a drive from the Villages of Woodland Springs, one of Fort Worth’s northernmost neighborhoods. Cynthia and Justin Loeb, Woodland Springs residents who have run the neighborhood’s popular Oliva Italian Eatery since 2010, saw a Tex-Mex void in the subdivision. So they recently opened Elote Mexican Kitchen, an inexpensive, fast-casual place in a shopping center anchored by a new Kroger.
This is Tex-Mex with a twist: Cynthia Loeb is gluten-free, hence almost all of Elote’s menu is gluten-free. The one exception is the flour tortillas, which are prepared on a different surface from other restaurant offerings. Elote also offers items such as soy cheese and tofu sour cream for vegan diners, an unusual touch for a small suburban restaurant. (Even though the restaurant is physically in Fort Worth, Cynthia Loeb says she considers it to be part of Keller, pointing out that downtown Keller is much closer than downtown Cowtown.)
The menu is fairly small, the ordering system simple: Choose your style (one or two tacos, or burrito, etc.), add your substance (beef, chicken, pork, seafood or vegetables), and add in “souped-up” ingredients (spicy spinach, angry chiles, vegan items) for an extra 50 cents to a dollar if you wish.
Orders are taken at the front counter, and you’re given a number — but unlike some taco joints we could name, Elote has runners who bring your order to the table as soon as your number is called. On a Friday-evening visit, we hadn’t even sat down when a server came out with our appetizers.
Naturally, we had to try the Elote especial ($2.99), the restaurant’s take on its namesake Mexican street corn, appealingly dripping with mayo and melty cotija cheese, with a dusting of house-made chili powder and a hint of lime. It’s served on the cob, making for a pretty presentation but awkward sharing (not that that stopped us), and the flavors combined nicely, with the cheese the standout.
We started with the chips fiesta appetizer ($6.99), a trio that let us sample the restaurant’s queso, guacamole and salsa. The queso was the winner here; although at first we thought it was served too lukewarm, that helped it thicken quickly, and the flavors of the white American/jack cheese blend, accented with poblano and red peppers, intensified as the queso cooled. The guacamole was fresh, and although it might not have been earth-shattering, there wasn’t a bit of it left on the plate when we were through.
The one disappointment was the salsa, which had a good tomato flavor but no spiciness, and was too thin to be a good dip. The chunkiness improved on a second visit, but the salsa was still mild, a trend we found in many dishes we sampled; fire-eaters might want to kick things up with the bottled sauces or house-made spicy salt at each table.
Or try one of the zippier additions, such as the spicy spinach I added to the grilled-shrimp taco in a taco combo (two tacos plus rice and beans, $6.49). The pepper-flecked spinach (50 cents extra) gave just the right amount of kick, mixing well with the pleasantly briny shrimp. For the other taco, I went with pulled pork, which had a nice meaty taste but could have used some heat.
My wife added even more kick to her vegetarian taco ($2.49) by ordering the angry chiles (50 cents), a serrano/caramelized onion mix that heat seekers should try. She’s a vegetarian always looking for a dish that will call her back to a restaurant, and the mixture of sauteed vegetables and hot peppers at Elote did the trick. The tacos are served open-faced, and are stuffed to tortilla-stretching proportions when folded; one was plenty for her.
A few days later, I returned solo to try one of Elote’s burritos ($6.49) stuffed with braised beef, rice, beans, jack cheese, lettuce and tomato, with sour cream on the side. The burritos are large and served in two halves, one of which I left unadorned; it was satisfying, but the other half was better with help from the angry chiles.
Elote also has 10 beers on tap, and orange juice-based, machine-made margaritas ($5), available frozen or on the rocks. But the biggest thing it has to offer is its friendly vibe; staff members would come by and make conversation and yet manage not to be intrusive. This is what the Loebs do best, designing places that are attractive (Cynthia Loeb is particularly fond of the many paintings by Austin-based artist Alfonso Huerta that adorn the walls) and relaxing hangouts — just what many people are looking for in a neighborhood joint.