I ate lunch recently with some friends at El Pariente, a fairly new Mexican eatery located near Earth Fare in Johnson City.
We had tried on one previous occasion to visit on a Sunday only to learn that El Pariente’s hours had changed and the restaurant is no longer open on Sundays.
The restaurant offers a small dining area, which was already fairly crowded when we arrived. We found a seat at a table and a server soon arrived with a basket of tortilla chips. He also took our drink orders and provided some menus.
The surroundings at El Pariente are casual to the point of being rather utilitarian. Black and white walls are trimmed with black-and-white checkered tiles. The table and booths are speckled grey and the black chairs are matched with red upholstered cushions. Framed prints of tomatoes and peppers are displayed on the walls. A screened area provides a glimpse into the kitchen area to permit patrons monitor the preparation of their meals. Other decorative items include a wall mirror and red pendulum light fixtures. A few wall-mounted televisions complete the decor.
The restaurant offers a well-stocked salsa bar. In addition to a variety of salsas, the bar also provides sliced radishes, cucumbers and limes. I liked the spicy green salsas, but my friends preferred the pico de gallo.
The menu at El Pariente is divided into six categories: Tortas (sandwiches), Fajitas, Quesadillas, Burritos, Tacos and Salads, as well as some side items, including guacamole, tamales and cheese dip.
The Tortas, or Sandwiches, are served on toasted French bread along with beans, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, jalapenos and chipotle sauce. The varieties include Asada (Steak), Lengua (Tongue), Pastor (Marinated Pork) and Desebrada (Shredded Beef). There is also a Cubana Torta, which features steak, pork, egg, ham and a hot dog on one sandwich.
Some similar varieties are available for the quesadillas, burritos and tacos.
Two members of my dining party ordered the Texas Fajitas, which consists of a mix of chicken, steak and shrimp, served with avocado salad and rice and beans. The fajitas are also accompanied by flour tortillas. A third friend ordered a Chicken Burrito with a Soft-shell Chicken Taco on the side.
For my meal, I decided on the Pariente Burrito, which features a mix of steak and chorizo sausage. I paired the burrito with a Shrimp Taco. Other varieties of tacos include Papas con Chorizo (Potatoes with Sausage), Pescado (Fish), Alambre (Steak, Onions and Cheese) and Carnitas (Shredded Pork).
The two platters of fajitas arrived first, making quite an impression with the sizzling contents served on a cast-iron skillet and producing plenty of steam. Not too long after, the two burritos arrived, but the taco I had ordered was not brought to the table. When we managed to get the attention of the server, there seemed to be a little confusion as we inquired about the taco. Probably another 10 minutes passed before the simple Shrimp Taco finally arrived at the table.
Most of our orders looked visually appealing but suffered from blandness. My Shrimp Taco, which was served on a corn tortilla, was smothered with onions and cilantro but came with only three small, grilled shrimp.
The fajitas were a bigger disappointment. None of the grilled meats tasted as if they had been seasoned. The burritos were probably the biggest hit, but they were loosely wrapped and also tasted surprisingly bland.
The service was polite but somewhat slow. For instance, we had some lengthy waits for drink refills. A lot of the servers seemed to be pulling double duty in the kitchen. A couple more wait staff would probably help streamline any service problems.
The menu doesn’t offer any desserts, so we concluded the meal without any sweets. El Pariente offers some interesting variety for its tacos and burritos, but it could really use a flavor boost for most of its food. Prices are modest for most of the items, which is probably a plus for a restaurant located close to the college population at East Tennessee State University.
AT A GLANCE: El Pariente, 1735 W. State of Franklin, Johnson City. 434-0161. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Menu items range from $2-$11.50. Credit cards accepted. Carryout available. Selection of bottled beers available.