Carlito’s Burritos gets spice just right

Of all of the various offshoots and/or variations of Mexican cuisine, we have in Las Vegas kind of a strange mix: Authentic Mexican, sure. California Mexican, all over the place. Fusion Mexican, yup. Tex-Mex, pretty much nonexistent. New Mexican? Not so much, and what we have has been diluted over the years.

So it’s no wonder I started hearing about Carlito’s Burritos soon after it opened. Usually, that happens with big restaurants with big PR budgets, but this seemed to be a grass-roots effort, and it was on behalf of a little hole-in-the-wall tucked into a strip center off of a not-so-busy intersection. What people mentioned most often was that Carlito’s was authentic New Mexican, even selling Hatch chile (and that’s the correct usage, I’ve learned), roasted fresh when in season, frozen when not.

Carlito’s is itty-bitty, and because of the crowd on the night of our visit also pretty cramped. Considering that they have live music on Fridays and Saturdays, I’m wondering where they put everybody. It’s such a small place that I was surprised they serve beer, wine and margaritas, and while the margaritas we had were pretty forgettable (then again, they also were $3), you’ll need something cold and wet to put out the fire.

A case in point would be the stuffed sopapilla ($5.95, or $6.95 for steak or shrimp), which we chose in pork verde with green chile, which the guy behind the counter warned would be hot, and wow was it ever. Hot in temperature as well, but spicy enough that we needed those margaritas. But — and this is a big but — it wasn’t gratuitously spicy, the fire just enough to accent, not overwhelm. The sopapilla itself was about as flaky as we could expect considering the blanket of chile, and the pork cubes impressively tender.

We couldn’t dine at a place called Carlito’s Burritos without ordering a burrito, and the steak combo burrito ($5.95 for steak or shrimp, $4.95 for beef, chicken, chorizo, carne adovada or pork verde) seemed a good choice. Most burrito places — even the chains — are big on choose-your-options, but Carlito’s takes that to a new height, with choices including refried beans, black beans, pinto beans, rice, calabacitas (corn and squash), lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, salsa, pico de gallo, pickled jalapenos or serrano peppers — plus guacamole and sour cream, if you want to add 60 cents or 30 cents. We added the black beans, lettuce, tomatoes, onions and cilantro, and got plenty of all of the above, but also lots of grilled steak and a red chile sauce that was feisty without being belligerent.

Chips and salsa were better than average, too. They’re not free ($3.75), but when you order them, you get a foil cake pan filled with a mountain of them, plus two foam cups with red and green salsas. So that’s the biggest drawback to Carlito’s, because the sopapilla and burrito were served in the foil pans, too.

Then again: It makes it pretty easy to take home leftovers; we just had to ask for covers for the pans and the cups and we were on our way. And these were leftovers we didn’t want to leave.

Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or hrinella@reviewjournal. com.

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