Maybe it was the summer solstice, a stretch of sunshine so long it was hard not to feel the world was bursting with positive energy. Maybe it was the day that preceded the meal, filled as it was with glorious views from the top of Blue Hill Mountain and the lookout at the Penobscot Narrows Bridge. It certainly wasn’t the wine; there wasn’t any. No beer, either.
But humble, little El El Frijoles, a family-run, from-scratch, Mexican-inspired eatery tucked away in Sargentville on the Blue Hill peninsula, gets the full star treatment from me. As in five. It’s only the second such rating in my two and a half years of reviewing for the Maine Sunday Telegram.
Why? It certainly wasn’t the white tablecloths. Here, you’ll find colorful oilcloth on picnic tables. Or the wait staff; you order at the counter. Or the fancy food, although absolutely everything served was as good as it could be.
But all aspects combined to make our visit to this modest, 7-year-old eatery exceptional. Travel Route 15 to a clapboard house with a colorful yellow sign, a miniature playground, funky sculptures made from scrap, and a large and immaculate screened barn housing the kitchen and a few tables.
Beyond that rests a simple wood building at the edge of the woods. Dine in here while nestled among the spruce trees and ferns, and feeling the summer air or gentle rain. It’s a wonderful al fresco outing.
Michael Rossney, who co-owns and manages the eatery with his wife, chef Michele Levesque, is the kind of order-taker whom you always want to find at the counter. Affable, patient and honest — he’ll tell you what’s good, if you ask. And he’ll chat as much or as little as you want, gauging your interest.
Strawberry/carrot aqua fresca was bright and flavorful; my dining partner’s mint and lime version was spectacularly refreshing ($3 each).
Speaking of lime, my husband could not get enough of the citrus-doused and spiced-up cabbage slaw that comes as a side with many dishes. It was fresh, crunchy, and tangy. Mound it over the carnitas — tender shredded pork that has been cooked all day and served atop house-made corn tortillas — and you’ve got glory ($9.95).
The from-scratch tortillas were softer and thicker than manufactured, which, after these, might resemble cardboard to you.
Crab quesadillas were crispy and piping-hot envelopes with gentle interiors of melted cheese and fresh, shredded crabmeat in perfect proportion topped with a swirl of crema. It was a delectable daily special ($12.95). Dressed lettuce and a bright guacamole came as sides.
Can one really make a sublime grilled veggie burrito? Yes, apparently. The greens were cooked to a char and mixed with rice and black beans ($6.95). Those black beans come from a local farmer who only uses horse-drawn power. It’s not just tasty food at El El; the restaurant commits to community and ecology.
To all of this goodness, choose from one of three, self-serve house-made salsas, depending on the hotness level you prefer.
And get this: The two owners, during a slow-down at mission central (the barn), circulated among the tables outside and in to see how everyone was liking their food. Where have you seen this at a counter-service eatery? I never have. Here, the experience is personal. The owners enjoy their customers, and it shows.
On the grounds, you’ll spy raised beds producing much of what they use in the kitchen: Kale, chard, lettuce, tomatoes, an interesting yellow oregano and strawberries. These last grow in a claw-foot bathtub that the owners inherited when they bought the property and couldn’t bear to throw out. The shitake mushrooms? Dennis Carter from a local eco-hostel is their grower and supplier.
The setting at El El Frijoles is slightly unconventional and definitely fun; even the tomato cages are multicolored. Not surprisingly, the owners were artists in the Bay Area before moving to Maine. Rossney’s family has been coming to the area since 1905, so it’s by no means foreign to him.
(The eatery’s name has nothing to do with L.L. Bean, by the way, although that’s how it translates into English.)
Desserts made us swoon — a creamy and dark chocolate mousse ($2.50 for four ounces, a bargain) that had a touch of extra interest that I couldn’t place. Perhaps it was the Belgian chocolate and the fact that it was made with local raw milk, transmitting a particular dairy “terroir.”
Chipotle added to the chocolate dough made the cookies sandwiching local Morton’s MOO vanilla a special twist on the traditional ($4.95).
Honest food, expertly prepared in all instances, in an atmosphere that verges on joyful — this is El El Frijoles. Add to that a commitment to wholesome fare made with the very best ingredients sourced with an eye to ecology and community.
There’s a satisfying coherence of mission, setting and food. And it’s all proffered without pretension, irony or holier-than-thou hipness. Frankly, I found nothing but pure happiness here.
Nancy Heiser has been writing Dine Out Maine reviews since January 2011. She can be reached at: