Arlene's Beans Mexican Take-out and Catering is a hole-in-the-wall joint.
Trust me, the description is meant as a term of endearment because Arlene's is a warm, friendly place with authentic, mouthwatering Mexican food. The nondescript exterior belies the attention to detail in the cooking; plus, the interior is clean and cozy.
The aroma of home-cooked Mexican food was like a welcoming embrace. This was immediately followed by a booming hello from Bobby Padilla, who introduced his wife, Arlene. There really is an Arlene who does all of the cooking with help from family members. Usually at least one of the couple's six children is in the kitchen.
"We want people to feel like they're eating in our home," said Arlene. That's what it felt like, except for the cooler of beer and wine from the liquor store, which shares the same space. Although alcohol can't be consumed on the premises, there are plenty of non-alcoholic choices, including Jarrito's, Mexican soft drinks popular south of the border.
The Padillas opened the unassuming restaurant in December, and it has quickly-established itself as a go-to place for Mexican food in the Tri-lakes community. Sorry, Palmer Lake. This is not a secret you get to keep to yourselves.
Food is prepared fresh daily. That means nothing is just reheated from the day before. Recipes are those Arlene grew up with in Albuquerque and from family in Chihuahua, Mexico. The emphasis is on subtle flavorings rather than tear-inducing spicy heat. This doesn't mean the dishes are bland. Far from it.
Chili rellenos always catch my attention. A single relleno ($4) served with beans and rice was a filling meal; the plate can be ordered with two. The egg-battered coating enveloping the Hatch green chili was not at all greasy. It had a texture similar to a sopapilla, a little crunchy rather than something fluffy. This was a different spin on this traditional dish, but the Monterey Jack oozing from the chili reminded me of why this is one of my favorites.
Most everything comes with rice, beans and a small salad. The rice was also a variation, which Arlene called Colombian. She said -she doesn't brown the rice before adding liquid. The beans were exceptional: earthy and creamy. They're not part of the diner's name for nothing.
Because I was so impressed with the side of beans, I ordered a basic bean and cheese burrito ($3.25). I wanted to eat it with my hands, so I skipped the smothered in green or red chili - or both. The burrito did not disappoint.
The chicken enchilada plate ($9.25) also features rice and beans, along with a small salad. The enchiladas are stacked with layers of shredded chicken between corn tortillas covered in a house-made green chili sauce.
While I was waiting for my order, a woman ordered a dozen tamales ($24) to go. She said they were the best she's ever had, and tamales ($2.25 each) are something she always orders at Mexican restaurants. I had to see for myself.
The masa surrounding the shredded meat was not at all dense, which often can be the case. A tasty, pungent red sauce coated the tamale, providing a nice element of heat and color.
Several varieties of breakfast tacos, burritos and an enchilada bowl are part of the brunch menu, which is served until 2:30 pm.
Although hours are posted on the door and online, it's a good idea to call to make sure Arlene's is open. Regulars tell me it's not unusual to see a sign indicating Arlene's is closed.