Serrano’s Mexican Grill
640 W 36th Ave.
$5-$10 per plate
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday
With the holidays upon us, it’s hard to find time to sit down and eat a decent lunch, even when somebody else is doing the cooking. I’ve visited many of the faster lunch stops in Midtown, but I recently put in at a place I’d overlooked despite its central location.
Serrano’s Mexican Grill sits at a fairly prominent site on 36th Avenue, just east of its intersection with Arctic Boulevard. The restaurant shares a building with the Qupqugiak Inn, which is quite accessible directly off 36th although parking is severely limited. A “Please Do Not Block Driveway” sign outside the door alerts customers to the tight single row of spaces in front of the building, although I found a space with relative ease during my visit at the tail end of a Wednesday lunch hour.
The restaurant’s brightly lit internal layout is very straightforward, similar to what you’d find in a chain Mexican restaurant like Taco King: an order counter almost immediately upon walking in, a menu board from which to make your selections, and a nearby condiment bar to visit once you’ve chosen your meal. About eight booths line the front wall of the dining area, with perhaps another dozen tables of varying sizes spread throughout the room.
Serrano’s full menu bears some contemplation before you order, ranging from appetizers to traditional Mexican fare like enchiladas and burritos, with a few less-usual items thrown in for variety. I decided to try an item from both the uncommon and more standard listings, ordering a shredded-beef torta ($8.75) alongside a bowl of tortilla soup ($6.95), then picking up a few garnish items from the condiment bar before sitting down and waiting about 15 minutes to be served.
The torta, often billed as a Mexican sandwich, was a simple dish fusing Mexican and American cuisine elevated by the quality of its ingredients. The shredded beef I’d requested as a meat choice was just as good at Serrano’s as I’ve found it elsewhere in town, a much juicier and tastier choice than ground beef that held its moisture as well as a slightly marinated flavor as I ate it. I found the result similar to a pulled-pork sandwich, blending well with the torta’s backdrop of tomatoes, sour cream, queso fresco (fresh cheese) and salsa; it was an intimidating pile of ingredients, but one perfectly contained by a perfect French-bread baguette, crispy on the outside and delightfully soft on the inside. A side of cilantro-Parmesan fries served with the torta hit the same high marks as the baguette, their outer crunch yielding to golden potato with a burst of flavor from their coating to make them everything an order of fries should be.
The tortilla soup was a much heartier dish than I thought it would be, quickly drawing my undivided attention once I’d sampled the sandwich and fries. Unlike La Mex’s version, Serrano’s soup tasted more like a tomato soup with chicken added than vice versa, opaque rather than clear; where La Mex piled tortilla strips beside the bowl, this one had the strips laid out atop the soup itself, enhancing its already filling properties. Bits of chicken and onion readily dredged up from the bottom of the bowl with every descent of my spoon, with the inclusion of a modest quantity of peppers clearing my nostrils and fortifying me to return to the waiting cold outside.
Serrano’s is a good entry into the packed Midtown Mexican market, offering a unique take on the cuisine -- its prices are generally in line with its competitors, but it brings a few more options to the table in both Mexican and American menu items, making it a better place to bring an undecided party than more dedicated stops like the Taco-Loco deli. Like the half-sandwich and fries I ended up taking with me when I was filled by the soup, I think Serrano’s will stand up over time and be worth coming back to.
Contact Chris Klint