It was Saturday night, and the parking at Fullerton's Transportation Center was a mess. There's no busier corner in downtown Fullerton than right here, right now, where Stubrik's, Commonwealth Lounge, the Slidebar Rock-N-Roll Kitchen, HopScotch, Kentro Greek Kitchen, Bourbon Street, Knowlwood, and the Old Spaghetti Factory all share a finite supply of spaces. Yet at El Amerikano, the new Mexican-esque beer-and-wine bar the Kentro folks opened next door, there wasn't a soul inside. The place was deserted, and the four young female servers were standing around, killing time by buffing already-clean glasses.
But because El Amerikano is as good as Kentro, it won't be long before it's discovered and those servers will be much busier, even if the place follows Kentro's operating model. There's no hostess to seat you and no menus other than the oversized one next to the register that you're supposed to gawk at as you enter. After deciding what you want, you place your order at the bar, pay for it, and then get a numbered placard to display at the table you pick out yourself. If you happen to have ordered a soft drink, the cashier will hand it to you right there; if you want water, it'll be dropped off later in a big, chilled carafe. The water glasses are already on the tables, alongside communal containers in which the knives, forks and napkins are wedged together upright.
Puffy seats outline the entire perimeter of the open floor plan that's as no-nonsense as Kentro's. As with its parent restaurant, El Amerikano resembles a modern gastropub, but a generic one, offering no clues as to what kind of food it serves. If it decides to stop offering enchiladas, nachos and tacos, no one would blink. Besides, you can't get a rice-and-bean-combo plate here anyway, nor could you wash it down with a margarita—the place only holds a license for beer and wine. And of the four beers on tap, none is Mexican. You have to resort to the bottles if you want a Negra Modelo, Victoria or Corona Light. But you're not here for the alcohol; you're here for the food, which is sort of Mexican—if you squint.
There are enchiladas, for instance—very good ones, broiled till the deep adobe of the salsa roja draped atop looks almost chocolate-like. They're then sprinkled with herbs, but filled with portobello and served as a side dish if you get the skirt steak entrée. The tacos here are also faultless if you approach them as you would Panda Express' Orange Chicken—delicious if given some leeway for “authenticity.” Chimichurri is used instead of salsa, and they are stuffed with more portobello mushrooms and a skirt steak El Amerikano is careful to not call carne asada. The nachos are topped with more of that chimichurri and crème fraîche. But the chips are thick, made of decent masa, and possess a sturdy crunch that holds up well against the cheesy sauce dribbled atop them. If the nachos work despite the barely there shaved prime rib offered as protein, it's because the dish has all the essentials of good bar food. Perhaps it's best to put the experience this way: Ask for some hot sauce, and you're offered Tabasco. There's no Tapatío. But you're not here to quibble.
El Amerikano does its best work when it focuses on its strengths and doesn't try too hard. The cauliflower fritas are addictive golden nuggets, the insides still firm and lovely. And the mac and queso is near-perfect, broiled with a crispy cornbread-crumb top and tasting exactly as you expect a Mexican-inspired macaroni and cheese should taste—with the slow burn of jalapeños creeping in after the third helping. If you want a burger, skip the actual one and choose the jalapeño-inflected chorizo sliders gilded with manchego instead; they are decadent little things bursting juice and Mexican-ish flavor.
It's almost pointless to spend any time with the main entrées when these smaller plates are so intriguing. But if you have to, El Amerikano seems proudest of its Jidori chicken. For some reason, it offers the option of ordering the whole bird, but only for takeout. You could also get a pork chop made with “an al pastor glaze” or even a salmon served with roasted cauliflowers and the Mexican pickled carrots better known as zanahorias en escabeche.
Those still looking to critique El Amerikano's Mexican authenticity might find it comforting to note the only dish El Amerikano gets really wrong is its wedge salad, which uses Thousand Island instead of blue cheese. But even this is mitigated by the bacon crumbles—as well as that you found parking here at all. Now go fill up those booths!