On an unassuming stretch of Soquel Drive, El Chino Mexican Deli Restaurant occupies a narrow storefront.
Inside, lively fiesta music plays on the stereo, decorative eaves with clay tiles jut from the walls, and healthy live plants crawl across rafters, creating the comfortable illusion of dining in a sidewalk cantina.
The list of weekday lunch specials ($5.85 to $7.50) includes avocado-chicken salad, enchiladas, chili rellenos and carne azada burritos. We were drawn to the generously plated house specialties, each of which occupied half of their oval pottery platters.
Two chicken drumsticks and breast meat were served as Gallina En Mole ($12.95). There was an abundance of dark, rich mole sauce, seasoned with chocolate and spices, to flavor the tender meat.
The vibrant green sauce of the Chili Verde ($11.15) was thick with tart tomatillos and mild green chilies. Charred flecks of roasted skin bequeathed a smoky depth. El Chino’s recipe, made uncharacteristically with steak, did not fall apart as the fattier cuts of pork do, but instead was braised until temptingly tender.
Kids will enjoy the mildly flavored Mexican Pizza ($6.50). A puffy, crisp, and crumbly flour tortilla was spread with refried beans and topped with moist shredded beef, crunchy white onions and diced green peppers, black olives and melted cheese. For me, the translucent red salsa, loaded with seeds and skins of hot red chilies, was the perfect dressing.
At Happy Hour, Monday through Thursday 3 to 6 p.m., enjoy special prices on well drinks ($2.99), margaritas ($2.50), domestic beer ($1.99), and appetizer combinations such as a quesadilla and draft beer ($4). The front patio will be an enjoyable spot later in the year, and the restaurant also features a good-sized banquet room to accommodate your festivities.
El Chino Mexican Deli Restaurant, 2525 Soquel Dr., Santa Cruz, 476-7175. Full bar. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner from 10 a.m. Monday through Thursday, and 8 a.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.