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Cheap Eats

At El Potro in Malden, Mexican comfort food is a galloping success

Among the menu items at El Potro Mexican Bar & Grill is fish tacos, served with shredded green cabbage and radish halves.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Chile relleno with shredded beef.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

First-time visitors to El Potro Mexican Bar & Grill always comment on the colorful decor. At the restaurant group’s newest location in Malden, it’s hard to miss the goldenrod-hued walls and archways edged with decorative tiles. Even the chairs — hand-painted with sun-dappled scenes of farmers cultivating agave and frisky galloping ponies (“el potro” translates as “the colt”) — feel festive. It’s an atmosphere that encourages you to linger.

Slip into a dining room booth or perch at a high-top table in the bar. The space seats more than 100. All your favorite Mexican comfort foods are here, as well as Salvadoran delicacies, like pupusas, and Tex-Mex fare, including cheesy nachos and wings.

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Elias and Juana Interiano are the owners here. The husband and wife were originally investors in a friend’s restaurant in Somerville. When the friend decided to sell, the couple bought the business, and later opened a branch in Lowell. Last summer, they added a third location in Malden, where Ravi’s Pasta & Pizzeria used to be. Juana Interiano develops the dishes, many from family recipes, and ensures that chefs at each site prepare them just the way she likes. Federico Gonsaga Olais is the primary chef in the newest location.

A gracious server arrives with the requisite basket of complimentary tortilla chips. The crispy triangles, still warm from the fryer, come with a shallow stone bowl of red salsa, plus a mini carafe of that same sauce in case you want more. There’s no chile heat in this dipping sauce, just bright, fresh flavors of ripe tomato, onion, and cilantro.

Ceviche de camarones ($14.95), shrimp “cooked” in the acid of tart lime juice, is excellent. Nubbins of the plump, chilled crustaceans are tossed with diced avocado and plenty of pico de gallo. It’s a refreshing appetizer to scoop with the crunchy tostadas that accompany it.

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Tamales Mexicanos ($3) is actually just one tamale, served with a slathering of ranchero sauce and a sprinkle of cotija cheese. You can tell that someone has labored over the shredded beef tucked inside the tender masa. That filling is delectable, full of savory, smoky flavors from toasted dried chiles. Be sure to order at least two.

Attention to detail is also evident in fish tacos ($13.95). Slender strips of tilapia are first rubbed with a spice mix (we taste cumin, ground coriander, and black pepper) then grilled to form a light crust. The morsels are folded into two soft flour tortillas and adorned with shredded green cabbage and snappy radish halves. A ramekin of what tastes like a Parmesan-herb vinaigrette comes on the side, but the tacos are delicious on their own.

Cinnamon-spiked flan.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Most entrees arrive with rice and beans. Whole black legumes — glossy and well seasoned — are our party’s favorite, but the tried-and-true refried style of pintos can be spied on many other tables. Chiles rellenos ($10.95) are also popular here, showcasing a fire-roasted poblano pepper, offering a whisper of vegetal heat, stuffed with a generous helping of that terrific shredded beef.

One dish fails to live up to expectations. Enchiladas al mole ($13.95) — corn tortillas stuffed with shredded chicken and topped with a cocoa and spice-infused sauce — is disappointingly bland. We would love to see the kitchen take more risks and turn out a mole that is earthier and more robust.

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Finishing with flan ($5) — cinnamon-spiked and sumptuously creamy — we overhear a party of friends at the bar, deliberating over drinks. The trio orders another round of margaritas and settles in for more conversation. It’s a good thing those chairs are comfortable.

EL POTRO MEXICAN BAR & GRILL

156 Highland Ave., Malden, 781-605-3120, www.ElPotroMexicanGrill.com

All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $5-$25. Entrees and platters $9.95-$19.95. Desserts $5-$6. Most dishes under $18.

Hours Mon-Thu 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri-Sun 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Liquor Full bar

What to order Shrimp ceviche, tamales, fish tacos, chile relleno, flan.


Ellen Bhang can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com.