El Coqui Mexicano

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I was a little hesitant when I suggested to a friend that we meet for lunch at El Coqui Mexicano. The last time I attempted a rendezvous at the little cafe, back toward the end of January, my friend and I were greeted with a hastily drawn sign on the front door that announced the restaurant would be closed until the end of the month.

Right, I thought. It's been my experience that whenever a sign like that appears on a door it means the owners have no intention of repening, and are usually several states away by the time anyone notices.

But El Coqui is open once again, and I've come to understand that the impromptu closing was the owners' unusual way of  doing things. It wouldn't be the most unusual thing, and certainly not the most annoying, but I'll come back to that in a moment.

For the most part I enjoyed my visit to El Coqui, which is named for a tree frog common to Puerto Rico. Oh, that's another unusual thing about this place -- not that it's named for a tree frog but that a place called El Coqui Mexicano would feature Puerto Rican food.

But that's a nod to the heritage of its two owners, Rico and Evelyn Martinez. Rico, despite what you might guess from his name, is from Mexico; Evelyn is from Puerto Rico. So the menu has food from both lands. They're separate on the compact menu, rather than presented as fusion cuisine, although that could certainly be interesting. If they ever try it, I think they should trademark the term Mexi-Rico.

I was in the mood for Mexican, and the huevos rancheros caught my eye immediately, and not just because it was the first entry on the menu board on the back wall. I just happen to love huevos rancheros, and so few places offer it that I usually grab it whenever I can.

But our server mentioned another dish, guarache, which seemed to have all the things I like about huevos rancheros with the added attraction of beefsteak. That's what I ordered.

My friend requested the chilaquiles, four tubes of crisply deep-fried tortillas rolled with shredded chicken inside. They were topped with a mildly spicy green tomatillo sauce and slathered with sour cream and white cheese.

My friend generously shared the chilaquiles, which was fortunate because it was several minutes more before my entree would be brought to the table -- just another unusual way of doing things here (but still not the oddest thing).

The guarache was delicious. Two seemingly fresh-made tortillas provided the foundation for refried beans, a thin beefsteak and two fried eggs, topped with the same toppings as the chilaquiles but more of them, especially the fresco queso.

El Coqui is a charming and compact place. Originally intended, I was told, to serve only as a takeout restaurant, tall tables and chairs were added when folks showed no intention of taking their food elsewhere. The walls and ceiling panels are painted in bright colors, and paintings of the restaurant's namesake adorn the walls. It is a very neat, clean space in every sense.

During our meal, my guest and I sipped our diet sodas. These were not our first choice. We had both requested only a glass of water. But our server told us the only water they served was bottled water. That's right: El Coqui will not serve its guests tap water. Buy something or go thirsty. According to a source at the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, there is no law that says a restaurant has to give its patrons free water. Though not to do so is simply lousy customer service. But I must add that the overall attitude of everyone there is welcoming and friendly. Still, in nearly 21 years of reviewing restaurants I never came across this one (even Ronnie's gave its patrons a glass of water!).

But, as I said, they tend to do things differently here. And the prices are quite low, so you can afford to buy some liquid refreshment. The chilaquiles were $7 and at $12 my guarache was the most expensive thing on the menu (my friend was buying!).

El Coqui Mexicano is at 2406 E. Washington St., Orlando (just east of Bumby Avenue behind a small bookstore). The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday until 7 p.m. each day, but don't hold me to that. On Sundays you can find the owners selling food at the farmers market at Lake Eola. The cafe's phone number is 407-601-4928. There is no Web site.