By Thomas C. Pavlik

El Arriero, which means “someone who drives mules,” opened up just under a year ago on West Wabash close to Archer Elevator Road. It serves fresh, authentic, homestyle Mexican food with great service and excellent salsa.

There’s lots to like here.

Although it’s in a strip center, El Arriero did a nice job on the interior. Dark wood rustic booths, a color scheme that reminds one of a hacienda, and several bull skulls help create a welcoming ambiance. There’s bar seating, several tables and a row of booths. A full-length window in the front finishes off the space.

My guests and I arrived just as El Arriero opened at 11 a.m. The place was immaculate, and it was obvious that management takes pride in the space.

Although we visited on a business day for lunch, any other time I generally like to wash down my meal with a margarita or ice cold Tecate. So if you’re in the mood to start day drinking, El Arriero has a full bar.

El Arriero’s menu is quite expansive, including a separate lunch menu where prices range from $8.50 to $14.99. There should be something on the menu that satisfies most anyone. The taco salad fajitas ($10.99) and the huevos rancheros ($9.50) caught our eye. The dinner menu contained the usual suspects.

We started with the queso ($3.99) and some salsa and chips. The queso was par for the course – nothing special, yet satisfying. I felt it would have benefited from the addition of some peppers. The chips were house-made and the regular salsa had a nice consistency (not too runny) and tasted freshly made. We all thought it was one of the better salsas in Springfield. It was also easy on the spice. Not so with the hot salsa we asked for. That had some zing and managed to hit all the right flavor notes. It might be too hot for some, but my guests and I had the hot bowl refilled a few times. Nicely done, El Arriero.

For entrees, we opted for the lunch fajitas ($11.99), the dinner carnitas ($16.50) and the pick-three combination lunch ($14.99). These were hard decisions, as the menu is big and there were other tempting dishes like the Capital Shrimp ($16.99, grilled shrimp with bacon sautéed in a sweet and spicy sauce, served with rice, beans and tortillas) and the burrito verde ($14.25, a flour tortilla filed with pork carnitas and covered with salsa verde, served with rice, beans and pic de gallo).

I tend to judge a Mexican restaurant by its carnitas, which literally interpreted means “little meats.” It’s made by simmering pork bits in liquid (traditionally lard), which can take four hours or more. The result is tender and juicy meat that’s packed with flavor and eaten with tortillas and the usual fajita accompaniments. El Arriero nailed it – the dish was loaded with flavor, and the pork was fall-apart tender. I was also impressed with the guacamole, which added a pleasant brightness to the dish.

The lunch fajitas (beef) were tasty, but perhaps the portion size was a bit small for the price. I get it though, the cost of ingredients has gone way up, especially for meat. My guest, a fajita aficionado, declared himself pleased and mentioned that he planned to come back.

The combination meal consisted of three picks from a list of burritos, tacos, enchiladas, tamales, tostadas, cheese quesadillas and chile rellenos. Rice and beans accompany your picks. My guest went with a ground beef taco and enchilada and a chicken burrito. The taco was my guest’s favorite; he requested a corn tortilla. It was very simple in the best of ways – ground beef, onion, cilantro, lettuce and cheese, and nothing more. When paired with the hot salsa it was the perfect street taco. The burrito and enchilada were also reported as tasty and were smothered with a deep and rich sauce.

Service was excellent across the board – our chip bowl was well attended, and our drinks never ran out. Our one suggestion – get a website, or please put the menu on the Facebook page. Guests shouldn’t have to hunt for the menu.

El Arriero is a most welcome addition to the Springfield dining scene with some fun twists and other authentic dishes. Job well done, El Arriero.