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PHOTO: B.A. Nilsson

Still Crazy . . .

El Loco Mexican Cafť

465 Madison Ave., Albany, 436-1855. Serving Tue 4-10, Wed-Thu 11:30-10, Fri 1:30-11, Sat noon-11, Sun 4:30-10. AE, MC. V.

Cuisine: Tex-Mex

Entrťe price range: $8 (veggie tostada) to $14 (high-end Loco Combo)

Ambiance: venerably funky


By B.A. Nilsson

The competition has soared since El Loco opened its doors more than 20 years ago, with Mexican chains, Mexican fast food, and even serious stabs at Mexican fare coming and going. Itís been easy to lose sight of El Loco, but this crazy restaurant perseveres in its charming home between the park and Lark, dishing out exactly what you expect in an atmosphere thatís fun and relaxing.

Itís a tribute to the vision of owner Marcia Tolive, who has guided the place through a succession of internal and external changes, and who lately has retrenched and reestablished the restaurant as one of the more reliable locations for this type of fare.

Since last reviewing El Loco in 1997, Iíve had a few disappointing visits. Even the addition of outdoor dining, a boon in downtown Albany, didnít make up for them.

But my recent visit did. And I kick myself for not having retried El Loco even sooner. Everything from the service to the food to those intangibles of comfort and sociability were working, and continued to work even as the place filled almost to capacity while I made my way through dinner.

The menu seems to have changed little, and even the prices seem more reasonable than what I last remember. One thing that grabbed my eye was the eveningís special: Oaxacan chicken mole tamales ($12.50), in which the sautťed meat is finished in a mole (bitter chocolate) sauce with some help from Dos Equis Amber. ďIíll have that,Ē my daughter said.

Not surprising. Our tastes are beginning to coincide. As we awaited my wife, I decided upon the ancho chicken and spinach chimichanga ($10.25), which Susan immediately claimed once she was seated. I talked her into a spinach burrito ($9.25) with sharing privileges.

Which makes ordering here sound easy! It isnít. Start yourself with some chips and salsa ($2.75) and, as good as youíll find the salsa roja, with fresh tomatoes and cilantro livening the flavor, be sure to enhance your options with the hotter stuff that awaits at the salsa bar in back.

Then consider the menu. Burritos, quesadillas, tostadasóyou know what the parameters are. The challenge is to satisfy your hunger requirements even as you explore the permutations.

I find that guacamole ($4.50) is a good test of south-of-the-border cooking, reflecting much about a restaurantís approach. A mixture thatís too uniform, blended in a machine, heralds a kitchen happy to cut corners. If thereís not enough avocado, youíre talking cheap. Good guacamole is hand-mashed and -blended, as itís done here. I wouldnít mind it more piquant and spicy, but I have to note that El Locoís version is so avocado-centric that itís full of flavor even as it contrasts with the spicier dips.

The Loco Chili Carne ($3.25) advertises itself as something special, and, while it may not suit the purists in Terlingua, its heart (and seasonings) are in the right place, in a brew thatís also slightly sweet.

Combo platters are a good way to sample a variety of items and range from $8.50 to $14, the latter a burrito-chimichanga-enchilada monster. And you get a side dish, which can range from rice and beans to a soup, guacamole, or blue corn bread.

But that Oaxacan mole was also an outstanding way to go. Enchiladas are filled pastries steamed in a cornhusk. For this dish, itís a scallion-cornmeal concoction thatís then drizzled with a cilantro-scallion cream. Inside, those chocolate-enhanced chicken chunks, a big flavor thatís especially good on a chilly night.

Setting off the quesadilla I chose is chipotle, or roasted jalapenos. This contrasts well with the sweeter flavor of the ancho chili, and the tartness of spinach is a natural addition. Itís also easy to get lost in all the cheese that accompanies this dish, with jack and cheddar flowing over and into the whole-wheat flour tortilla in which the meat is wrapped.

Mexican rice is a side, along with a small helping of salad that offers a welcome contrast of temperature and texture to the rest of the dish.

The burrito espinaca comes with rice and beans and the option of another side; Susan chose a cup of the sopa del dia (soup of the day), which was chicken Florentine (lots of spinach this night). It was a good, if somewhat unremarkable blend, but at least distinguished by virtue of being homemade.

The burrito itself also contains mushrooms and artichoke hearts, which are nice flavors to combine, and plenty of cheese surrounds it. Although it looks comparatively petite, itís a filling meal.

Donít forget that this is a very vegetarian-friendly place, where items that donít explicitly claim meat content are cooked completely without it; where you can assemble an a la carte sampling for few dollars (tacos are $2.65 apiece, rice and beans $2, burritos $4.20 and thereís much more).

Service was swift and efficient, and we saw several servers during the course of our meal, all working together with impressive ease. So donít let the competition daunt you: El Loco was the original, remains original, and is worth another visit.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


Tonight (Thursday, Oct. 19) there will be a cigar soiree at Park 54 (54 Clifton Country Road, Clifton Park) in association with Park Lane Tobacconist. $60 gets you drinks, dinner and cigars. For more info, phone 688-1548 or check out www.park54restaurant .com. . . . Tonight sees another cigar dinner, this one at Carmineís Restaurant (818 Central Ave., Albany), where chef Carmine Sprio is designing a menu to accompany a selection of CAO cigars (youíll get five!) Along with drinks and dinner for $85 (inclusive). Call 690-2222 to see if there are seats left. . . . The Gateways Inn and Restaurant (51 Walker Street, Lenox, Mass.) will host a Macallan Whisky cocktail reception and four-course dinner at 7 PM Saturday (Oct 21). Chef Rosemary Chiariello has created a four-course menu that includes roasted-duck-breast salad, lobster cappuccino and grilled beef tenderloin in a peppered wine sauce. Itís $80 per person, and you can reserve seats by calling (413) 637-2532. . . . Girl Scouts, Hudson Valley Council, will hold their fifth annual Cookie Cuisine event from 6 to 9 PM Tuesday (Oct. 24) at the Italian American Community Center, Washington Avenue Extension, Albany. Youíll see Cookie Cuisine honorary chair Carmine Sprio and a host of talented culinary teams prepare gourmet entrees and desserts using all of your favorite Girl Scout cookies, including a brand new, top-secret cookie. Tickets are $35. For reservations, call Sharon Smith at 489-8110, ext. 105 or e-mail ssmith@ girlscouts . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food@

We want your feedback

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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