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B.A. Nilsson

Three’s a Charm

El Mariachi III

2955 Route 9, Ballston Spa, 581-5901. Serving Mon-Fri 11:30-10, Sat 3-10, Sun 4-10. AE, MC, V.

Cuisine: Mexican and Spanish

Entrée price range: $12 (Flautas Mexicanas) to $28 (Langosta el Mariachi)

Ambiance: cheerful


By B.A. Nilsson

Although mariachi bands continue to thrive, the origin of the word itself is obscure. Once thought to derive from the French word for marriage (noting the use of a mariachi ensemble at such events), it’s now believed to refer to a native term for guitar wood or even a different celebratory day.

Which makes the word a good pick for a Mexican restaurant that offers a variety of regional fare as well as a selection of Spanish appetizers and entrées. It’s a successful enough combination that this is the restaurant’s third area location. Not far from Saratoga, it opened about a year ago.

The original El Mariachi opened at 62 Central Ave. almost exactly 10 years ago; it moved a few blocks down to 144 Washington Ave. several years ago. Meanwhile, El Mariachi II had opened in Albany’s Robinson Square; this is also when Spanish dishes were added to the menu.

It has proven a successful enough mix that the same menu, at least to the best of my recollection, is offered at the Ballston Spa location. It couldn’t be easier to find, by the way: Almost as soon as you leave the Northway on exit 13N, you’ll see it on the right—it’s what used to be the Packhorse Restaurant. After a facelift and with the addition of Mexican decor, it has the cheerful look of a neighborhood eatery that just happens to feature a more exotic menu. Based on the good business they’re doing, it’s working.

As an alternative to the taco houses that pass for Mexican restaurants, this place is superb. You’ll find nachos and tamales, burritos and chimichangas on the menu, and I’m sure they’re tasty—but why bother? There’s so much more here to sample.

From the start (meaning, back in the early days of the Central Avenue Mariachi), it’s been a family oriented business. Started by siblings Marco, Patty and Cesar Bermejo, it has always featured food from their native city of Puebla, credited with the invention of mole poblano, a sauce of chocolate and peppers.

You’ll find it among the entrées as part of a chicken dish, and the versatile chicken is also available simmered in a pumpkin-seed sauce (pipian de pollo), sautéed with garlic and jalapeños (à la Mexicana), in a sauce of Oaxacan cheese and sour cream (pollo San Marco), and, as pollo chipotle, in a stew with tomatoes, onions, cilantro and smoked jalapeños (each en trée is $15).

I sampled the last-named, and it exemplified what I discovered while tasting other dishes. An exciting mix of flavors permeates the generous portion, with the heat of the chipotles adding a delayed boost to the tart sweetness of the tomato-based sauce. What’s missing is a small component that spreads the flavor throughout the palate—the part that’s typically (and unimaginatively) filled by salt. Certainly I praise the chef for not oversalting the dish, but I’d be happier still if the flavors were more kinetic.

You can’t say that the kitchen is inconsistent, however. This was true of an appetizer, gambas al ajillo ($9), from the tapas menu, a Spanish dish offering sautéed shrimp in a garlic-laced broth with tomato about it. Served with a small loaf of bread (for mopping purposes), it sported the garlic’s spiciness but seemed reluctant to offer flavor in other directions.

I had no such reservation about the crema de elote poblano ($4.50), a not-too-thick corn chowder set off with poblano peppers and sour cream, a kind of meal-in-itself concoction that warms everything inside you.

Because I’m a sausage enthusiast, I also ordered an appetizer of quesadillas with a chorizo stuffing ($8). Oaxacan cheese and the lively salsa known as pico de gallo also fill out the tortilla sandwich, but the homemade sausage steals the show with an intense, smoky characteristic.

Cochinita pibil ($15) is a kind of braised pork dish in which the meat first marinates in a mix of orange juice and achiote seed paste, adding zest to the tenderized pork. It’s a big, satisfying plate, but, again, I was looking for a more over-the-top flavor. Entrées are served with Mexican rice and black beans, and I guarantee you’ll be taking part of it home if you start with any appetizers.

Entrées also feature various preparations of beef, veal, pork and seafood, with separate sections for grilled items, such as the sizzling fajitas platters, and Spanish dishes, which are the costliest ($19-$28) and include a seafood-rich paella as well as a couple of lobster-based concoctions.

Nearly a dozen vegetarian items give a generous choice of what should be some tasty meat alternatives, using vegetables, beans, cheese and the various sauces in creative ways.

A tray of outsourced cakes supplements traditional items like flan and rice pudding, but my mango margarita was dessert enough. Service is quick, but you’re dependent upon a crew of younger servers whose enthusiasm level varies. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable, comfortable alternative to dining in busy downtown Saratoga, and I’ll be more than happy to visit again.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


Schenectady shows off its work-in-progress Little Italy at La Piccola Italia, the first annual Little Italy Street Fest, which will be held from 1 to 8 PM Saturday (Sept. 9). The recently redeveloped area (on North Jay Street just north of Union Street) has long been popular with those seeking homemade Italian ice (and now gelato) at Civitello’s, or to seek out the hard-to-find loaves of Perreca’s famous bread. It’s also where an expanded Cornell’s Restaurant recently relocated. The event includes a full schedule of music, the Doc & Rick Magic Show, a homemade wine competition, face painting and more, but the real star of the show, of course, will be food. From anisette to zeppoles, you’ll savor all the delicacies that make Italian cuisine such a favorite. Among the offerings: grilled fruit, peaches in wine, rice balls, salt-and-pepper biscuits, greens and beans, panini, ziti, meatballs, fried dough, fried calamari, sausage and peppers, and much, much more. The event is free and open to the public. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail:

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Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore


Elaine Snowdon

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky

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