At El Carnicero, Eric Williams' new Lakewood cantina, I violated my No. 1 rule when it comes to working meals: I ordered the same dish on a subsequent visit. That dish is the al pastor tamale, and I hadn't been able to expel it from my mind since first meeting and eating it. Long simmered meats, in this case pork, have a tendency to be heavy, one-dimensional stews that, while comforting, rarely are exciting. But like the restaurant's namesake luchador, or Mexican wrestler, this dish attacks you from all sides.
El C is not Momocho West, but it does share some DNA with Williams' insanely popular Ohio City restaurant. Like Momocho, it features the chef's take on contemporary Mexican food. But given the space—a sprawling multi-room bar that seats 150—El C takes itself less seriously than its Ohio City sibling. That's not to say that the food is any less thoughtful.
When you think about it, El C also has elements in common with Williams' other hotspot, Happy Dog in Detroit Shoreway. Both employ menus that feature a main component—hot dogs at HD, tamales and tacos at El C—that are customized with various toppings. This is hardly a coincidence as that approach is key to serving large numbers of people in a relatively brief amount of time.
El Carnicero's menu might be built for speed, but it's also built for grazing. The best way to enjoy a meal here is with a group of friends who don't mind sharing. Start with chips and a few types of salsa ($3), which are incredibly layered and complex. The beguiling sikil pak is nutty, smoky and floral, while the salsa verde is bright, fruity and citrusy. El C's guacamoles are every bit as good as Momocho's, with four options that range from traditional ($7.50) to smoked salmon, corn and chipotle ($9). Unlike Momocho, though, if you want to try more than one, be prepared to open your wallet a bit wider as there's no sampler.
Entrees are divided into two categories: tamales and tacos (or taquitos, as Williams calls them). In the former, fragrant steamed masa, presented in dried corn husks, is topped with one of nearly a dozen main items. In the latter, many of those same items are presented alongside a tortilla warmer filled with small corn tortillas.
Carnicero translates to "butcher," and the name is a pretty good indicator of what's to come. Slow-cooked meats like beef brisket, lamb, wild boar, duck and pork belly are transformed into savory toppings for tamales or fillings for roll-your-own tacos. That magical al pastor ($14) is aggressively seasoned, intensely flavored, but bright and citrusy, too. I gilded the lily with the addition of a runny fried egg ($1). Hints of coffee and ancho elevate beef brisket ($14.50) from a one-note affair to a sweet, smoky symphony of quivering meats. Long-simmered duck confit ($15) is appropriately lush and rich, with the dark leg meat barely clinging to the bone. If there's an element missing from some of these dishes, it's textural complexity.
While meat is front and center where it belongs, fish and veggie dishes aren't too far behind. Horseradish-glazed salmon ($13.50), served like all dishes with a pair of sauces, arrives meaty and moist. Vegetarian dishes include tamales topped with mushrooms and zucchini ($11.50), poblanos stuffed with fresh cheese ($10.50), and cumin-roasted carrots in mole ($10.50).
Given the pub-like atmosphere—and Williams' stated goal to make EL C super snack-friendly—it would be nice to be able to mix and match tamales and tacos. Instead it's one or the other, with a heaping two-tamale order on the one hand, and a tall stack of tortillas on the other.
One's best bets for snacking around, apart from the starters, are the sides. Amazing borracho beans ($2) employ firm black rather than mushy pinto beans. Crispy fried empanadas ($4.50) are filled with corn and huitlacoche—aka "corn smut"—a fungus that imparts nuttiness. Escabeche ($2), traditional pickled veggies, also is on the roster. You normally have to fight me for the last piece of chicharrón ($4), but here the fried pork rinds are mixed with spinach, hominy and dressing, rendering them soggy. I say ditch the mix-ins and sell just the pig skin.
No surprise that El C boasts a massive tequila list, a lengthy Mexican beer selection and eight different flavored margaritas. Get the sampler ($14), a pairing of three flavors, or better yet, just order up a tall glass of the red bell pepper variety ($8). It's surprisingly delicious. And with the right group of tablemates, El C is riotously fun—kind of like Momocho on a tequila-fueled spring break.