On a crowded corridor of Mexican cuisine, El Mirador offers a few outstanding details 

No matter where you stand on the Friends-is-the-greatest-sitcom-ever debate, you have to respect the writers' strategy for naming episodes. Each installment was titled in the same diction that viewers would use to describe the plot, e.g. "The One With the Embryos," "The One With the Flashback," and "The One With the List."

The same clunky nomenclature could be extended to Nashville's Mexican restaurants. At first, they may appear so similar (at least to typical American palates) that they blend together like countless happy half-hours of Ross ogling Rachel, Chandler making fat jokes about Monica, and Phoebe and Joey plumbing new depths of ditziness. But when you look closely, each stands out for certain defining details.

Employing that approach, we would refer to El Mirador, the new Mexican restaurant next to K & S Market on Nolensville Pike, as "The One With the Beans and Slaw," because in addition to the salvo of salsa and chips, El Mirador offers a tiny plate of citrus-soaked cabbage and carrots with a puddle of warm refried beans. The interplay of cool vegetables and creamy beans makes for an unexpected opening to the meal and a memorably distinctive signature for a restaurant that stands out in its crowded culinary category.

Maria and Joel Gutierrez, who came to Nashville from Jalisco, Mexico, by way of Idaho, opened El Mirador this summer. Sharing its name with a large pre-Colombian settlement in Guatemala, the narrow shotgun eatery is pristinely decorated, with trompe l'oeil murals, warm-colored faux stucco arches and red roof tiles. Chef Alfred Aguilar mans the kitchen, preparing a sprawling array of food that fills a 10-page illustrated menu plus a two-sided express lunch list. With so many items to choose from, we encountered some disappointments along the way, but overall the good outweighed the bad, and we discovered a few superlative cheap eats.

Fresh homemade tortillas—corn and flour—are a defining hallmark of El Mirador. Soft, chewy, CD-sized rounds are the foundation of many items on the menu, especially the express lunch repertoire of tacos and mulitas. In fact, our most satisfying approach to El Mirador's menu was to mix and match a variety of these inexpensive à la carte options, available with shaved grilled steak, grilled pork and chicken. Other traditional animal parts are also on the menu, including buche, tripa and barbacoa, which our server explained via charades, pointing alternately to her stomach and head. (While English is limited at El Mirador, and we remained unclear about what part of the animal the barbacoa was coming from, the ready smiles and diligent service were worth a thousand words.)

At $1.20 apiece, three tacos made for a satisfying and beautiful bargain of a meal. Each round was topped generously with tender flavorful meats, chopped cilantro and onions, and the trio arrived on a platter, accessorized with lime wedges, flavorful pickled carrots and sultry grilled onions and jalapeños. A squirt of thick, vibrant salsa verde added an unexpectedly intense dose of heat and brightness well beyond what we've become used to at other local Mexican restaurants, such as "The One With the Awesome Fish Tacos."

Similar to the tacos, mulitas combined various meats, lettuce and onions between two fresh tortillas, with a sprinkling of shredded white cheese holding the top and bottom together. Placed briefly on the grill, the two-ply tortillas emerged lightly golden and faintly crisp, with a hint of chewiness. At $2 apiece, a pair of mulitas made an ample $4 lunch.

Another high point was the tostada ceviche, piled with a generous medley of lime-tinged shrimp, cucumber, tomato and cilantro. With fresh avocado strips across the top, the pink-and-green bounty was inarguably beautiful and fresh-flavored, but ceviche purists be warned: The recipe uses cooked shrimp and imitation crabmeat in lieu of raw shellfish.

When we asked our servers—on both visits—for their recommendations, one suggested the seafood molcajete, and another suggested the caldo de camarón (shrimp soup). The molcajete arrived in a large white bowl rather than in a traditional rough-hewn stone vessel (like the heavy molcajetes at "The One With the Huge Arched Patio"). A thick tomato-based stew married whole shrimp, hunks of fish and tiny plump scallops with mushrooms, celery, carrots and onions for a slightly confusing merger of earth and sea. Looking around the restaurant at our lunch, equal numbers of diners appeared to be eating the seafood molcajete and the shrimp soup, and frankly, we had entrée envy. The brothy caldo de camaron—bobbing with huge prawn heads—looked more like the texture of the soup we love at the Mexican restaurant up the street, i.e. "The One With the Bright-Orange Facade."

Our biggest disappointment was the chicken mole. With a color and sweetness recalling melted milk chocolate, the classic sauce lacked the depth and spice of ground nuts and peppers. Mixed with pale hunks of grilled chicken and served with beans and faintly seasoned orange-hued rice, the dish went virtually ignored at our table. Similarly, the chili colorado—tender cubes of beef bathed in a deep reddish-brown sauce—lacked flavorful dimension, despite the rich color.

When it comes to comparisons with so many other Mexican eateries, El Mirador trounces much of the competition in the kids' meal department. All too often, the kids' menu is an afterthought, headlined by a pale tortilla folded over some melted plastic cheese. But at Mirador, the kids' food rivals some adult offerings. (And we were happy to see a bottle of Heinz ketchup accompany the ubiquitous fries.) Our selection of Mexican pizza, enchilada and quesadilla arrived with three similar permutations of flour tortilla, lightly spiced shredded chicken and melted cheese, but the food quality and portions were consistently superior. On both the Mexican pizza and the enchilada, the fresh tortillas were grilled to buttery golden-brown perfection, yielding a flaky, crisp surface that gave way to a soft spongy bite. What the kids did not eat, the adults devoured, doused in fresh chunky salsa, piquant salsa verde and the leftover beans and slaw. (Unfortunately, the guacamole tasted so flat, lacking zing, zest or salt, that we didn't even finish our bowl.)

With lackluster guac, Pepsi in lieu of Coke and a relatively subdued ambiance, El Mirador won't often divert us from our habitual Mexican eatery ("The One With the Servers Who Know Our Name"), but there's plenty about the food and service to recommend "The One With the Beans and Slaw."

El Mirador serves lunch and dinner daily.

Email cfox@nashvillescene.com, or call 615-844-9408.


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