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UNLV-adjacent El Patio Mexico isn’t flawless, but it’s an ideal spot for good, cheap Mexican food

As spring creeps towards summer, I generally patronize the restaurants around UNLV a bit more than usual. This can be a rough time of year for businesses operating along South Maryland Parkway. Once classes end on May 18, their most regular customers return home for summer break. While seasonal business is a fact of life for any establishment that caters to college kids, I’ve seen the summer lull kill more than one great restaurant. So I like to pay a bit of extra attention to the neighborhood this time of year. (Moreover, it means I won’t feel ancient eating in a room full of people half my age.) This week, while looking for someplace new, I stumbled across a cute little spot called El Patio Mexico.

The restaurant is small and modestly decorated. Its menu, however, is pretty large. In fact, you could probably eat here every day this summer and still not sample everything by the time fall semester begins. For starters, El Patio offers 15 appetizers ($4.75-$7.50), nine salads ($5.50-$9) and five soups ($7.50-$13.50). Main courses include eight burritos ($4.50-$9.50), seven tortas ($5.25-$6.75), five chimichangas ($7-$7.50) and four enchiladas ($9.50-$10.50). Those are followed by a page of more than two dozen house specialties ($7.25-$20) and another full page of seafood dishes ($7-$12). And just to round things out, there’s a breakfast section ($6-$8.50), a kids menu ($3.75-$5), three hotdogs ($4.50-$5.75) and 10 lunch special combos ($7-$8.25).

When my friend and I entered on a weekday afternoon, we were greeted by a pleasant young woman whose English, while better than my Spanish, wasn’t particularly good. As a result, it took a few seconds of miscommunication over where to sit before we decided to simply seat ourselves at the bar. The language barrier persisted as we asked about various dishes. But we eventually determined that while a handful of items featured house-made tortillas and other homemade base ingredients, most did not. Those that did, however, were clearly marked on the menu, and we gravitated toward those.

That proved to be a good strategy. A trio of homemade zopas ($5.75), topped with beans, cabbage, onions, tomatoes and ranchera sauce, were wonderful. Even better was a huarache ($9), a thick, homemade tortilla topped with beans, cheese, your choice of meat, onion, tomato, spicy salsa verde and sour cream. I was less impressed with the chicken enchilada/chili relleno lunch combo special. The cheese-stuffed Anaheim pepper didn’t appear to have been battered at all, while the enchilada was OK, but unexceptional. Nonetheless, at $7.50 for the plate, it wasn’t a dish I’d complain about.

I’m also torn on the final dish we sampled. Mole zacatecano ($8.50) consists of chicken and potato in a spicy red mole sauce served with pinto beans and tortillas. In this case, the tortillas clearly weren’t made in the restaurant. Nonetheless, it was a pretty good dish. In fact, if it had been labeled differently, I probably would have enjoyed it quite a bit. The problem, however, is that the sauce didn’t have any of the complexity I expect from a mole. It was little more than a spicy red sauce. That’s not a big problem for me. But moles are very special sauces. They’re tough to do correctly, but when they are, they’re amazing. And this, sadly, was not.

These minor complaints aside, in a city without a lot of good Mexican food, El Patio Mexico is better than most. Throw in the extremely reasonable prices, and it’s clearly a perfect spot for students dining on a budget. And once they leave town, the rest of us should eat there to help it survive the lean summer months.

EL PATIO MEXICO 4550 S. Maryland Parkway, 597-1155. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog, www.almancini.net and follow him on Twitter @almancinivegas.