Tuesday, September 27, 2011

El Nopal

4118 Oaklawn Blvd.
Hopewell, VA 23860

        Last Saturday, my mother, brother and I decided to go out to lunch in Hopewell as a pre-celebration for my brother’s 20th birthday on September 20th. After some very brief contemplation (there’s not much to eat in Hopewell) we decided to go to K&L. Since K&L, like most of Hopewell, is stuck in the dark ages we first had to go get cash from the bank.  Because Hooray for Hopewell was going on, there were 10 cars waiting in line for the ATM.  After a good 20 minute wait and with $40 in hand we were off to get lunch from K&L. But to our surprise, (I’m sure most of you will say “Duh!”) K&L was closed. Undeterred, we decided we felt like going to SubHub anyway.  As we pulled up to SubHub a large “CLOSED” sign hung laughing in our faces. Once again, we were off in search of a decent lunch in Hopewell, a seemingly fruitless task.  My mom then suggested we drive up the road to the 15th Street Café which was surprise, surprise, closed. Since we were downtown, we figured that we might as well check and see if Mim’s restaurant was open. As I’m sure you guessed; it was closed.  
After striking out five times, my mom said “I know where IS open.” She would not tell my brother or me where she was thinking because she did not want to jinx it.  We pulled up to a very familiar restaurant, El Nopal. It was OPEN. So we jumped out of the car, half starved.   El Nopal is a very stereotypical Mexican restaurant. When I say stereotypical, I mean extremely stereotypical - from the murals on the walls to the blaring Spanish music.  But no matter what, El Nopal provides reliable Mexican cuisine and is almost always open.
A host seated us under a huge Mexican themed mural in booths covered in the extremely bright and colorful poncho style fabric.  In a matter of seconds, we had tortilla chips, white sauce and salsa on our table and had already ordered drinks.  The staff at El Nopal is quite pleasant. They are fast and friendly and speak pretty good English, though some are a lot better than others. The chips at El Nopal differ from trip to trip. Sometimes they are warm, crunchy and taste fresh but today they were cold and stale. This did not matter too much to us after we dipped them into the mysterious but delicious white sauce, which they call Blanco sauce.  Blanco is white is Spanish, so the mystery surrounding this sweet concoction remains.  If El Nopal stopped serving the white sauce I do not believe that I would frequent the restaurant any longer, it is just that good.  The salsa on the other hand is very watery and too spicy for my taste.  I have been known to mix the two with rather delicious results though.  I call that pink or Rosado sauce. I can’t swear if any of the appetizers, chips and dips, are made fresh in the restaurant but I would venture to say that they are not.
While munching on chips, we browsed El Nopal’s expansive menu. While El Nopal may not be the greatest Mexican restaurant in the world it does have one of the largest menus I’ve ever seen in one. It has every Mexican dish you could ever imagine and much to my delight it has a huge seafood selection. I must admit that I have a weakness for shrimp, scallops and crab meat. It does not matter if I’m at a Mexican, Italian or Chinese restaurant my eyes and stomach are always immediately drawn to the seafood section. Today was no different, I ordered the Burrito Del Mar.
My burrito was stuffed with jumbo shrimp, scallops, onions, peppers, squash and zucchini; smothered in cheese sauce and served on a bed of rice and beans with lettuce and sour cream on the side. The shrimp, scallops and vegetables were all cooked well, pleasantly seasoned but nothing really stood out as truly excellent. Overall, it was a tasty burrito and for $7.95, on the lunch menu, it was a pretty good deal; but I also felt that it was quite run of the mill and could probably be found at any Mexican restaurant with some being better and some being worse.  I do enjoy that most entrees at El Nopal can be covered in your choice of sauce.  I always order mine covered in cheese sauce.  I feel that while adding flavor it does not completely overwhelm the other flavor in the dish, like other Mexican sauces can.  This is especially important with mildly flavored seafood dishes. 
My burrito really sums up El Nopal as a whole. While it is good, reliable, convenient and better than most of the other Mexican restaurants in the Tri-Cities (I’m talking about you, El Corporal and Don Jose) it is not amazing.  For these reasons, if you are in the Tri-Cities and hankering for Mexican food I recommend eating at El Nopal. You will neither be disappointed nor blown away but you will be full and have eased your cravings for a reasonable price. 
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