There’s a blend of simplicity and sophistication at both of these dining rooms, with south-of-the-border dishes infused with the chefs’ own careful touches of flavor and presentation.
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This is nothing if not a love song for La Elenita Tienda y Cocina. Like many true loves, it was unassuming at first, but made of many layers to fall in love with. The first layer was the location, a resurrection of a former taco joint, El Charly, that I used to frequent when I first moved to Roanoke six years ago. Then it was the joint grocery store and restaurant with telenovas playing on the tv screens and a mix of John Mayer and mariachi playing on the CD player. Next came the veritable jug-mug of horchata – 16 ounces more than I could feasibly drink, but so sweet and so refreshing that I couldn’t stop, heaven help me. But we aren’t even finished. Freshly fried tortilla chips and house-made tomato salsa with chiles and cilantro, the perfect snack to hold till the crescendo: the food, any and all of it on the menu.
Located in an unassuming building on Melrose Avenue (close to Peters Creek), La Elenita generally isn’t even noticed unless you’re looking for it. Inside, you’ll find a grocery store (tienda) stocked with spices, dry goods, and a few perishables like tortillas, chorizo, and lettuce, along with a restaurant (cocina) with 10 or 11 tables. What the space lacks in interior decoration, it makes up for with plenty in flavor – which is the real reason any of us are here anyway.
As soon as you’re seated, you’re offered fresh tortilla chips along with one of the best salsas I’ve eaten in the valley. Certain salsa bars have nothing on this simple but spicy blend and, try as I might, I’m never able to refrain from polishing off the basket of chips by the time my main dish arrives. Drinks are a simple affair – water, horchata or a fresh juice of the day – no margaritas here, but a jugo or horchata the size of your head (I have to grip the mug with both hands in order to drink it) sets you back only $2 or so: a total steal.
Deciding what to order, though, is the difficult part. Portions are large, but if you’re feeling peckish, opt for another chip-based appetizer like the Elenitas Dip, a dish of refried beans topped with chorizo and molten cheese dip. Swirl on a bit of either the tomatillo and jalapeno or the chile de arbol hot sauce for a bit of kick and you’re good to go with a hearty pre-dinner snack.
If you’re in the mood for tacos, La Elenita is the place to go. I’ve sampled almost all of them (all are topped simply with diced onion and cilantro) and, for the more adventurous, opt for my favorite combination: two lengua (beef tongue) and two tripa (beef intestine). The beef tongue at Elenita is incredible – seared on the outside, tender and fall apart with the poke of a fork on the inside – and the tripa is beyond any taco I’ve ever eaten. As one friend exclaimed, “it’s like pork belly!”–crispy, crunchy, salty, smoky goodness in a tortilla. If you’re squeamish at the thought of intestine, just think “pork belly” and take a big bite. You won’t regret it.
Much like a taco, except not exactly, are the sopes, crispy fried masa cakes topped with refried beans, your choice of meat (steak, chicken, or, as I recommend, pork), lettuce, sour cream, and queso fresco. Reminding me of many a late night food truck snack I enjoyed after a show in Chapel Hill, these sopes are both classic and filling – a trend of every dish served here. Another great late-night vibe option is the Pambazo, a monster of a sandwich filled with chorizo, French fries and lettuce, dipped in guajillo sauce, and drizzled with queso fresco and sour cream. You can’t eat this with your hands – it’s a fork-and-knife sandwich – but it’s a sandwich I crave late at night after going out with friends. If Elenita were open past 10 pm on the weekends, I’d likely become a regular. Which isn’t to say you can’t order the sandwich during the day, but a fair warning about how giant it is. Points if you can finish the entire beast.