July 8, 2013

Dine Out Maine: Humble El El Frijoles takes Mexicali dining to joyful height

By Nancy Heiser

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.

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Sargentville may seem like an unlikely place for a five-star Mexicali dining experience, but that’s what you get at El El Frijoles.

Courtesy photos by Michael Rossney

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EL EL FRIJOLES, 41 Caterpillar Hill Road (Route 15), Sargentville. 359-2486; elelfrijoles.com


HOURS: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday

CREDIT CARDS: Mastercard, Visa

PRICE RANGE: $2.95 (chips and salsa) to $15.95 (spicy lobster taco)


GLUTEN-FREE: Yes, including the corn tortillas

KIDS: Very kid-friendly, with a small playground


BAR: No; BYOB. No cork fee.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: An outdoors picnic table may be accessible if the gravel parking lot can be navigated; there's a small step to enter the barn.

BOTTOM LINE: Mexican street food meets the bounty of Maine, merging into one of the best Mexicali restaurants in the state, if not the region. Mix wonderful food with an unusual setting and magnetic owners who work the line as hard as anyone and still make it look easy and fun, and you've got a very special spot.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value: *Poor  **Fair  ***Good ****Excellent *****Extraordinary. The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.


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.

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