Surprise, surprise

Josh Niva
Carne asada and guacamole fresco at Ernesto & Ricardo's Grill.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Ernesto Hernandez of Ernesto & Ricardo's Grill shows off the carne asada and guacamole fresco, two of the most popular items ordered at the Mexican restaurant located at the corner of Arctic Boulevard and International Airport Road.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

There are pleasant surprises aplenty at Ernesto and Ricardo's Grill. Some of the surprises jump out at you -- the clean, colorful and festive space looks nothing like the worn venue that housed greasy spoons for an eternity; and you can practically hear and see the best dishes announcing their presence from the kitchen (flaming fajitas, sizzling enchiladas) and being prepared table-side (guacamole fresco). Some of the surprises take a bit of digging to uncover -- digging through an extensive menu, digging into house-made tortillas and digging through thick blankets of white, stringy cheese that seem to top every entree.

The biggest surprise of all -- in a city full of Mexican restaurants -- we now have an intriguing new option worthy of our dining dinero.

Opened in late 2009, partners Ernesto Hernandez and Ricardo Ordunta said they aim to recreate authentic cuisine that represents their Mexico City roots, as well as give nods to all of the states of Mexico.

Hernandez is the kitchen king and restaurant veteran who learned to cook from his mother in Mexico City and has operated a popular Mexican diner, Ernesto's, in Valdez for many years.

Hernandez splits time between his two restaurants, but he has left his Anchorage kitchen in good hands: I always found the beef, chicken and shrimp juicy and never overcooked, and the vegetables were always sauteed to classic caramelization while still holding texture, color and crunch.

Looking for Hernandez's finest? Peruse the "Ernesto and Ricardo's Favorites" section of the menu and check the dry erase board at the front counter, which offers a different special every day. Hernandez says he has as many as 180 daily specials in his arsenal, but makes sure his most popular -- from fried whole tilapia to ribs served in tomatillo and cactus sauce -- appear often in the rotation.

I stuck to the menu during my recent visits and was wowed by the usual and unusual.

The guacamole fresco appetizer ($6.99) is ridiculously simple, but fun, fresh and brings smiles to faces. I saw smiles when it was prepared at other tables; later I was grinning too, as our server mashed fresh avocados in a bowl with some salt, lime juice, tomatoes, onions and cilantro. I told you -- simple. And it was also fresh and a bright starter -- we devoured it with the basket of tortilla chips.

The Jose Cuervo Flaming Fajitas Supreme ($22.99) lived up to their impressive name. The platter arrives loaded with grilled chicken and steak, as well as four massive shrimp, and a spread of green and red peppers and onions.

The flaming part comes when a server dumps a shot of tequila on the plate, then lights it afire. It's more than spectacle -- the fire also helps deglaze the platter and seal the subtle fajita flavor into everything.

The pollo fresco ($14.99) offers big, juicy grilled chicken chunks paired minimally with peppers, spinach, onions and tomato chunks.

It was light, multicolored and multi-dimensional. The carne asada burrito ($11.99) could be the best bang-for-your-buck on the menu -- simple and filling with plenty of salt, tang and cumin flavors.

The staff certainly knows how to wow its customers, but there are times when Ernesto and Ricardo's takes the flair too far. The worst case: They bury some of their best work in cheese.

Most of my Combo Magnifico ($15.99) - and most entrees, far that matter - arrived covered in white cheese. It's a shame too because when we finally dug out and identified the chile relleno and beef tamale, they were both superb. The tamale was rich and packed with shredded beef and wrapped in soft, sweet corn. The chile relleno had a perfectly prepared layer of egg inside, nesting with even more cheese.

The shrimp enchilada ($15.99) was totally misleading. It arrived with four big, butterflied shrimp sitting atop a long, dense cheese enchilada. The green tomatillo sauce was a nice touch, and when the cheese was warm, it was thick, stringy and gooey plate.

But once it cooled, much of it hardened as pockets of oil started to puddle.

And the handful of cheese on the pollo fresco was unnecessary and gave a heavy nod to an otherwise buoyant dish.

Hernandez stands behind his heavy-handed cheese distribution.

"People in Alaska, they like cheese here," he said with a laugh. "They are always asking for cheese, cheese, so I put cheese on everything."

Well not on the margaritas. Hernandez is still working on attaining a liquor license. Diners can order beer, wine and sake margaritas, and sake margaritas are margaritas in name only.

And while they certainly don't skimp on the portions, they do hold back on their fabulous, taco-sized flour tortillas.

Only two were brought with my pollo fresco dish; my massive fajita platter came with just three. You can buy three more tortillas for $1.99, but it seems unfair.

But a few annoying surprises at Ernesto and Ricardo's Grill don't distract from all of the enjoyable surprises, big and little, you'll find there.

By Josh Niva
Daily News correspondent