A plate with three enchiladas - one each with red, white and green sauce, with refried beans and rice from Norte Sur

Norte Sur Mexican Restaurant

A view of the exterior of Norte Sur, featuring a brick and stone facade with large picture windows

First impressions for a business are everything. I think they are even more important for a restaurant because when you think about it, your first visit to a restaurant is multiple first impressions.

What does the building look like? What does the dining room look like? How were you greeted when you walked in? How is the service? How long does it take to get your food or your check? And of course, what does that first bite taste like?

Wooden tables and benches beneath colorful strings of banners at Norte Sur

One of Berks County’s newest restaurants, Norte Sur Mexican Restaurant, checks a lot of boxes.

Norte Sur opened in a former Turkey Hill Minit Market along Kutztown Road in Muhlenberg Township, right across the street from the former Freymoyer’s Restaurant.

The amount of work that was put in to transform the building shows that Norte Sur is serious about their business. The exterior has been given a touch of class thanks to the addition of a brick and stone facade.

Wooden tables and benches beneath colorful strings of banners at Norte Sur

That same motif carries inside to the dining room where brick arches set it apart from the take-out and kitchen areas. Otherwise, the decor is subdued compared to other Mexican restaurants in the area. Strings of small, colorful banners hang from the ceiling while the walls are decorated with paintings along with a few traditional men’s and women’s outfits. The seating is comprised entirely of booths made of high-backed wooden benches.

We were greeted and seated by a friendly hostess who also served us throughout our visit. We – Julie, Jakob and I – had arrived around 5 p.m. on Friday afternoon and were the only ones dining in at the time. Two other couples were seated before we left at 6 while we heard several phone orders coming through during that same time.

Norte Sur’s menu is pretty simple: tacos, enchiladas, burritos, quesadillas and a handful of additional entrees and appetizers.

A bowl of green poblano soup drizzled with sour cream and cheese and topped with red, green and yellow tortilla strips from Norte Sur

One appetizer that caught my eye was the crema de poblano, a creamy soup that started with a mix of chicken broth and poblano pepper. It was topped with tortilla strips, cheese and sour cream.

I had poblano soup once before, about a year ago at Alebrije in Wyomissing. I enjoyed this one just as much, though they had very different flavor profiles. Norte Sur’s version wasn’t as creamy, but I found it to be just as flavorful with a little more spicy heat throughout. I enjoyed the addition of the tortilla chips which added some texture. The shredded cheese was also a nice touch, helping to thicken the broth as it melted.

It was definitely something that I would order again. The same can be said for my tacos Norte Sur.

Three soft-shell tacos with steak, pico de gallo, cabbage and pickled red onion from Norte Sur.

The tacos Norte Sur are, as the name implies, a signature item for the restaurant. The three soft-shell tacos are filled with grilled steak, cabbage, pickled red onions, chipotle sauce, pico de gallo and cheese. It was a delicious combination.

The steak was nicely done in small-ish strips with a hint of seasoning, but the flavor of the toppings was outstanding. The pico was bright and fresh. The pickled onions added a vinegary note that paired well with the citrusy tones of lime juice which could be tasted throughout. I was very happy with my decision.

A bowl of refried beans with yellow rice on a plate from Norte Sur

Most entrees at Norte Sur are served with a side of rice and refried beans. Refried beans are not my favorite, but these weren’t bad. The yellow rice was also good. It had peas and a few bits of carrot throughout. I knew I couldn’t finish all of the food that I had ordered so I sacrificed some of my rice and beans in favor of the tacos and soup.

Julie and Jakob both had rice and beans with their meals as well. Julie always gravitates to enchiladas, and in this case, it was the enchiladas Norte Sur.

A plate with three enchiladas - one each with red, white and green sauce, with refried beans and rice from Norte Sur

The meal included three distinct enchiladas: one beef, one chicken, and one cheese, each topped with a different sauce. The beef was topped with a traditional red enchilada sauce that had more of a kick to it than the other two. The chicken enchilada was topped with a creamy white sauce that provided a cooling contrast. And the cheese was topped with green tomatillo sauce that was somewhere in the middle.

All three were very good, but Julie’s favorite was the cheese enchilada (it usually is).

A large soft shell taco on a plate with refried beans and yellow rice from Norte Sur

Jakob’s favorite thing on his plate was the rice. Our two-year-old can sometimes be adventurous with his meals and sometimes not. We knew he would eat the rice – and he did, happily. We had hoped he would eat his beef taco, but after a couple bites he gave up on that.

We had the choice of soft shell or hard shell for his taco, and chose soft. It seemed like he was having difficulty holding it together which may have been why he stuck with the rice.

A basket of tortilla chips with a bowl of red salsa from Norte Sur

I should also mention that we had chips and salsa at our seat before we had even ordered our meal. The chips were served warm – always a nice touch. And the salsa was very good, and like much of our meal, had a kick to it.

The service and price both left good impressions as well. The two servers covering the dining room were attentive throughout, and our meals and my bowl of soup cost about $35.

After we left, Julie and I were both remarking about how good the food was and how impressed we were with what they did to turn a mini market into a real restaurant.

Our first impressions of Norte Sur Mexican Restaurant were very good all around.

BCE Rating
Food: Very Good
Service: Very Good
Ambiance: Very Good
Price: Reasonable

Norte Sur Mexican Restaurant
2610 Kutztown Rd
Reading, PA 19606

Lunch & Dinner Mexican Reviews
Alebrije Spinach Enchiladas

Alebrije – Wyomissing

Five years ago, in January 2014, Berks County Eats as we know it truly began. It’s incredible to look back to see how much has changed, and how much has stayed the same since then.

Amazingly, it’s been five years since we last blogged about Alebrije. That visit was to the Exeter Township location and while it was a very good meal, we never made it back to either of Alebrije’s other two locations in Wyomissing or 5th Street Highway.

On a Sunday afternoon in December, we finally decided to pay another visit – this time to the Wyomissing location.

Even this location has changed since Berks County Eats began. Five years ago, Alebrije’s Wyomissing restaurant was still located in a strip mall near the Berkshire Mall. In 2015, it moved to a stand-alone building, the former Ciabatta restaurant along State Hill Road.

The menu has been updated since our visit and I was glad for this because I got to enjoy the poblano soup – an item that was added when the menu was updated.

Alebrije Poblano Soup

I didn’t know what to expect beyond what the description in the menu said: “smooth, slightly spicy and creamy.” I’ve had peppers in soup but never a cream of pepper soup. But after trying it, I would eat this soup again and again.

The soup was definitely creamy and I always tasted the distinct flavor of poblano pepper throughout. I didn’t find it spicy at all – flavorful, yes, but not spicy – so it was easy to eat and enjoy. And the sour cream was a perfect complement.

I can’t imagine a better start to the meal than this.

Alebrije Spinach Enchiladas

For my entree, I decided to try the spinach enchiladas – another item that was listed as “new” on the menu.

The plate was beautiful when it arrived (it’s amazing how a little sour cream can liven up a plate). The primary topping for the spinach-filled corn tortillas was a creamy chipotle sauce. It featured a mild spice, nothing overpowering. It worked well with the spinach though and was enjoyable enough, but I would probably go back to the enchiladas poblanos (and the mole sauce) in the future.

Alebrije Steak and Chorizo Tacos

Julie enjoyed her chorizo and steak tacos. The tacos come topped with Chihuahua cheese with cilantro, onion and spicy tomatillo sauce on the side to build to your own taste.

She skipped the tomatillo sauce – the chorizo was enough spice for her taste – but she took advantage of the cilantro and onion. Both helped to enhance, not mask, the flavor of the meat. And the mix of steak and chorizo ensured that the flavors of both shined through in every bite.

Both Julie and I had sides of refried beans with our meals (mine also came with rice). I’m not a huge fan of refried beans but these were good enough.

Kids eat free on Sundays at Alebrije, which had two advantages for us. One, we could order a kids meal for Jakob and not feel guilty about him not eating the whole thing (we did take his leftovers home) and two, we knew there would be other families, most likely with small children, so Jakob wouldn’t be a distraction.

Alebrije Kids Quesadilla and Chicken Nuggets

For his meal, we ordered a combo that included two of his favorite foods: quesadilla and chicken nuggets.

The plate came with one kid-sized quesadilla and five nuggets. The quesadilla was a little simpler than one that you would order off the menu while the nuggets were pretty generic. I certainly wouldn’t order it for myself, but Jakob seemed to enjoy them so I have no complaints.

Alebrije Chips and Salsa

One other thing to mention: like all good Mexican restaurants we had chips and salsa at the table almost immediately. I’m a fan of Alebrije’s salsa. It’s somehow both thin and chunky with just enough heat to have me going back to my water.

Alebrije has always been reasonably priced, and with the kids eat free deal, it makes it even better. For our three meals, bowl of soup and an iced tea, we spent around $35 (kids meals are normally priced at $5.99). Our meal was certainly a good one and for me, the soup was well worth the additional $6.50.

I still can’t believe it’s been five years since our first visit to Alebrije, but I can say this after our latest meal: we won’t be waiting five years to visit the 5th Street Highway location.

BCE Rating
Food: Very Good
Ambiance: Good
Service: Very Good
Price: Reasonable to Very Reasonable

Alebrije
2224 State Hill Road
Wyomissing, PA 19610

Lunch & Dinner Mexican Reviews

Castaneda’s Mexican Restaurant – MOVING

Editor’s Note: Castaneda’s Mexcian Restaurant is moving. The location at 141 West Penn Avenue closed at the end of July. A new, larger location will be opening this fall on the other side of town at 225 West Penn Avenue.

My childhood home of Robesonia has undergone a lot of changes over the years, oftentimes in ways that I would have never expected.

For example, 25 years ago, I would have never imagined a Mexican restaurant would open in town. But that’s exactly what happened in August 2017 when Castaneda’s Mexican Restaurant debuted.

The location doesn’t have a great track record – restaurants have come and gone over the years. Most notably, Muddy’s Smokehouse BBQ occupied the space for about two years. Castaneda’s is trying to turn that around.

Visitors may recognize owner James Castaneda as one of the business partners who began La Abuela Mexican Restaurant in West Reading.

Castaneda’s menu is smaller with a greater emphasis on lighter fare – tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, fajitas, burritos and salads.

We visited on a Saturday evening in December, and the dining room was about half-full. Castaneda’s has a handful of tables for four in the small storefront. There was also a steady stream of customers picking up take-out orders while we – Julie, Jakob, my parents, and myself – sat at a table by the front window.

With a relatively small menu, it didn’t take long to decide on our meals. Before our meals were delivered, we were served our complementary chips and salsa.

The salsa is pureed, not chunky, making for easier dipping and more consistent flavor in every bite. It was good, though I don’t think I could ever complain about free chips and salsa.

Our meals arrived a short time later. Looking for more of a meal than a snack, I ordered the enchiladas Verde – three hefty beef enchiladas in homemade green sauce and queso fresco.

Verde isn’t normally my go-to, but I wanted to switch it up from my usual order of enchiladas with mole sauce.

The sauce gets its distinct green color from the tomatillos. It had a very mild spice, but was full of flavor. The ground beef was also well-seasoned, and the two worked very well together. And the cool creaminess of the queso fresco added a nice finish.

Enchiladas at Castaneda’s are served with yellow rice and refried beans. I have always preferred black beans to refried – the texture of refried beans leaves a lot to be desired – but these were fine. I found myself scraping for as much of the salsa Verde as I could get to mix with the rice and beans to give them some of the great flavor that the enchiladas had.

Julie also ordered enchiladas, but for her it was enchiladas Suizas, one of several daily specials advertised on the menu board.

Enchiladas Suizas literally means “Swiss enchiladas.” The name comes from the dairy used to make the creamy white sauce (thank you, Google).

Choosing chicken as the protein, Julie really enjoyed the dish. It was a heavier sauce (Julie had to bring one of the three enchiladas home with her because they were so filling).

Suizas sauce was also out of her comfort zone (ranchero sauce is her favorite), but this dish got her approval, and she said she would definitely order it again.

My parents each enjoyed their meals as well – my mom had a quesadilla with a side salad while my dad had the chile rellano – a stuffed pepper also served with rice and beans.

But despite all of us being full, we couldn’t leave without trying the fried ice cream. By that, I mean Julie couldn’t leave without trying it. We just had to help her eat it.

The vanilla ice cream was coated in a corn cereal, and deep-fried. It was served with cinnamon tortilla chips and whipped cream, and topped with chocolate syrup and sprinkles.

It’s probably the highest calorie menu item in western Berks County, an indulgence that is great once every five years or so. But it’s so good. The contrast in texture and temperature between the hot, crunchy shell and cold, smooth ice cream never gets old. Everything else is unnecessary (but delicious) window dressing.

It’s also a lot of food, especially after a full meal. We all left feeling way too full. But while we certainly packed on pounds, our wallets didn’t lighten much. Castaneda’s is reasonably priced. The four of us were able to eat for less than $50, even with the dessert and some sodas.

It’s still crazy to think that there is a Mexican restaurant within walking distance of my parents’ house, but Castaneda’s is here. And based on what I saw – and tasted – it might just be hanging around for a while.

BCE Rating:

Food: Very Good
Service: Very Good
Ambiance: Fair
Price: Very Reasonable

Castaneda’s Mexican Restaurant
141 W. Penn Ave
Robesonia, PA 19551

Castaneda's Mexican Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Dessert Lunch & Dinner Mexican Reviews

La Abuela Mexican Restaurant

la-abuela-exterior

A few months ago, Julie and I were walking through West Reading during the annual Fall Fest on the Avenue. As we made our way down Penn Avenue, we paused outside La Abuela Mexican Restaurant, the newest restaurant in town at the time.

The owners were standing outside, handing out photocopied versions of the menu to everyone walking past. I was intrigued, but I always like to give a restaurant some time before making a visit.

Fast-forward to a Friday night in November, in need of a place for dinner that was close to home. I dug through our pile of menus and came across the La Abuela menu I picked up two months ago. My decision was made.

La Abuela is located in the old Van’s Cafe, next to Subway on the 400 block of Penn Avenue. It has a major advantage over many of the other restaurant’s along West Reading’s main thoroughfare: a row of customer parking spaces on a private lot behind the building.

la-abuela-1

The most notable change in the building since the new restaurant took over the space is the floor-to-ceiling map of Mexico. Bright shades of orange, yellow, purple and green highlight the country and neighboring Guatemala, home to one of the restaurant’s co-owners.

In English, La Abuela translates to “Grandmother.” A picture of an elderly grandmother adorns the menu, which is filled with traditional Mexican dishes.

la-abuela-jarritos

It also includes 10 flavors of Jarritos, a brand of Mexican soda. I enjoy these sodas so much more than American soda because they are made with real cane sugar (and a lot of it. A two-serving bottle contains more than 50 grams).

But what I love more than the soda is the food. I couldn’t wait for our meal so I ordered an appetizer of flautas, fried tacos filled with chicken and topped with homemade salsa, queso fresco, Pico de Gallo and sour cream.

la-abuela-flautas

The crispy tortillas ate like an egg roll with more flavor coming out of every crunchy bite. The sour cream and queso fresco helped temper the spices in the salsa. I probably could have gone through a couple plates of flautas and left very happy.

Instead I finished off my share and waited for my tacos al pastor to arrive. Normally, I go for something heavier like enchiladas or fajitas, but marinated pork with pineapple, sautéed onions and cilantro sounded too good to miss.

la-abuela-tacos-al-pastor

I was not disappointed. The meat was so tender and flavorful. With the sautéed onions, it ate more like fajitas than tacos.

Three different salsas accompanied the dish, including a cup of fresh-made guacamole. It was so smooth with the right mix of cilantro and mild heat. The other two salsas — one a Pico de Gallo, the other a tomatillo sauce — were good in their own right (the Pico was probably my favorite of the two), but the guacamole was perfect.

While I was enjoying my tacos, Julie was digging into her enchiladas verdes. Like me, she opted for something a little out of her comfort zone as she normally enjoys her enchiladas with a red sauce, but she greatly enjoyed this change of pace.

la-abuela-enchiladas-verdes

The chicken was juicy and spicy, but not hot. The cheese was melted inside the tortillas as well as sprinkled on top.

Her favorite part of the meal might have been the refried beans, which she called the best she has ever eaten. I would tend to agree.

The beans were made using black beans so they looked more appealing than the brown beans we get at most restaurants. The black beans also gave it a richer flavor.

After we had our fill, Julie asked our waiter for a box for her last enchilada. Our waiter, one of the co-owners, tried to talk us into dessert, saying it was better than dinner. Unfortunately we had no room left in our stomachs to confirm his claims.

We had arrived early for dinner, about 5 p.m., and there were not many others in the restaurant with us. By the time we were finished an hour later, it had begun filling up for dinner so it took our waiter a little longer to take our check (about $35) and see us on our way.

After a delicious, and quite filling meal, I was glad that I found the menu earlier that day. La Abuela was definitely the right choice.

BCE Rating
Food: Very Good
Service: Good
Ambiance: Good
Price: Reasonable

La Abuela
448 Penn Ave
West Reading, PA 19611

Lunch & Dinner Mexican Reviews

Road Trip: Buena Vista Mexican Restaurant

buena-vista-mexican-restaurant

As much as I love to plan out where and when to try a new restaurant, sometimes the best places are the ones I find by accident.

This is especially true when it comes to our road trips, those times when we have to find somewhere to eat outside of the comforts of Berks County.

That was the case a few weeks ago when Julie and I made a trip to Philly. We took the train from Malvern to Jefferson Station (nee Market East) with every intention of enjoying lunch at the Reading Terminal Market.

Those plans quickly changed after we walked in during the Saturday lunch rush. Unable to move, let alone find a place to sit and eat, we abandoned the market, went with a light lunch and decided to look for a bigger dinner when we returned to Malvern.

So after a long day in the city, we were starving for some good food in the suburbs. After consulting nearly every review site, we found ourselves in a strip mall along Lancaster Avenue.

Buena Vista Mexican Restaurant isn’t visible from the street. The shopping center that it sits in features three strips of shops and restaurants with Buena Vista tucked way in the back around a curve in one of the rows.

The walls were painted different colors, green on the sides, maroon in the middle. Bronze lizards, an Aztec sun sculpture and assorted paintings covered the wall. Somehow, the decor came together without feeling tacky.

buena-vista-chips-and-salsa

One of my favorite things about dining out for Mexican food is the chips and salsa, and Buena Vista may have the best that I have tried. Instead of the thin, Tostitos-style chips served at many restaurants, Buena Vista has thicker, deep-fried chips that are made in house. Combined with some fresh, mild salsa, I could have kept eating them all day.

And the meal just got better from there.

buena-vista-steak-fajitas

My steak fajitas were still steaming on top of the sizzling skillet when they were delivered to our table. Served atop the traditional bed of grilled onions and peppers, with a side of refried beans and all the fixings, I couldn’t wait to start piling on my tortillas.

There were no weaknesses on the plate as everything was really good, but what really set this dish apart was the guacamole. This was, hands down, the best guacamole that I have ever had. It tasted so fresh, with just the right amount of cilantro and other spices to complement. Adding it to my fajitas made all the difference.

buena-vista-chipotle-enchiladas

While I like to change things up whenever I go out, it is almost a sure bet that Julie will order enchiladas. This trip was no exception as she ordered some shredded beef enchiladas with chipotle sauce. A little spicy, but not too hot with plenty of meat.

When I get high quality food like we had at Buena Vista, I don’t mind paying a little more. The chips and salsa weren’t a free add-on like they are at most places, and our total bill came in just a little over $30.

Buena Vista was not a place that I had planned on eating, but it ended up being one of my favorite meals in a long time.

That’s why I will never stop looking for new places to eat.

Buena Vista Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Lunch & Dinner Mexican Reviews

Alebrije – Perkiomen Avenue

IMG_2965According to Wikipedia.com, an alebrije is a piece of Mexican folk art, a brightly-colored sculpture of a fantastical creature.

It’s also a really cool name for a restaurant.

Though the name is catchy, it’s the food and the atmosphere that hooks people on a restaurant. The owners of Alebrije must be doing something right to have three locations in Reading: 5th Street Highway, Perkiomen Avenue and State Hill Road.

Alebrije’s Perkiomen Avenue location is set in a repurposed Bojangles. The old drive-through window still juts out awkwardly from the side of the building. Inside, guests are greeted by a parade of cardboard cutouts, including The Most Interesting Man in the World who invites you to “stay thirsty, my friend.”

A large mural is painted across the back wall of the dining room. The clichéd southwestern scene features a desert complete with cacti. A door to nowhere betrays the fact that a wall has been removed.

The old order counter is now the bar where the wait staff were tending to a man who had his coat draped over one stool and his briefcase on another. All told he took up three of the four bar stools, and the fourth was blocked by the collection of empty margarita glasses.

We got a seat at one of the high top tables that were shoe-horned into the bar area. A forged-iron cowboy stick figure held up a dessert card and guarded the three bottles of hot sauce (two red, one green).

IMG_2960Like all good Mexican restaurants, the meal starts with unlimited chips and salsa, and for my wife, a frozen banana margarita.

IMG_2963There was definitely no skimping when it came to her drink. It was big, and as her eventual hangover proved, not watered down.

When it comes to main courses, my wife and I each have our Mexican favorites. For her, it’s ranchero sauce, a traditional mild red sauce.

For me, nothing beats a good mole sauce. Though there are thousands of variations on this chili pepper-based sauce, my favorites are the ones that have that dark brown color that comes with the addition of chocolate.

IMG_2964When my enchiladas poblanas came out, they looked like they were covered in the darkest chocolate. The sauce was amazing, the mix of heat and sweet balanced perfectly with the chicken. Admittedly I have not made it to every Mexican restaurant in Berks County, but of the ones I have, this is the best sauce of any kind that I have found.

While my enchiladas were excellent, I was very disappointed to see the light brown puddle next to them on my plate. I like refried beans—they’re great as a side or rolled up as part of a burrito—but they should at least look like beans. Though the beans tasted fine, they were runny and just did not look appealing.

Overall though, Alebrije was impressive. The building may have been a little cramped, but it’s pretty impressive what they’ve done to turn it from fast food into a real restaurant. The prices are impressive, too. Even with the margarita, our bill was less than $30. That’s hard to do without a drink at most restaurants.

I am sad to report though, I saw no mythical creatures during my visit.

BCE Rating
Food: Very Good
Service: Very Good
Ambiance: Good
Price: Very Reasonable

Alebrije Mexican Restaurant
3805 Perkiomen Ave
Reading, PA 19606

Alebrije Mexican Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lunch & Dinner Mexican Reviews