"It's very smooth and warm on a cold night," the grateful Diego told her.
Lots of other items on El Patron's menu are less potent than a tricolor cocktail but just as warm and soothing. The restaurant's stark look is a different story. "It's very 1980s," said another friend of mine, who likes the three-month-old restaurant even though he finds its concrete floor, black tablecloths and exposed brick walls to be stylish but cold.
The stylish part is what Chicago-born Arturo Cabral is going for. El Patron is his version of a hip, urban Chicago Mexican restaurant: "no Mexican flags, no sombreros."
El Patron translates roughly as Big Boss, and if anyone deserves to put his own imprint on a new business, it's Cabral. He has waited nine years to open a full-service restaurant. Back in 1997, Cabral opened the Del Rio, a combination restaurant-saloon at 2934 Southwest Boulevard. In 1998, the neighborhood flooded and Cabral nearly lost his shirt.
"We didn't have flood insurance," he says. "When I reopened the Del Rio, it wasn't a restaurant anymore, only a bar, and we only serve oysters and shrimp cocktail. That's it."
When the opportunity came to take over the old brick building down the block at 2905 Southwest Boulevard last occupied by Gia's Italian Cucina Cabral decided to give it a shot and open the kind of restaurant he liked to go to in Chicago: "A trendy venue with more grilled dishes, like a Mexican barbecue, than Kansas City was used to."
Cabral knew what people would think: Just what Southwest Boulevard needs, another Mexican restaurant. And right across the street from the iconic Ponak's, no less.
"Ponak's is great," Cabral says, "but it's very different from what I'm doing here."
True enough. There's none of Ponak's vitality in El Patron's tiny dining room, which isn't big enough to contain that kind of raucous energy. But El Patron's staff is friendly and attentive, and if the décor isn't exactly warm, the Cabrals certainly are.
The menu isn't extensive, though Cabral says he plans to add new dishes as business picks up. He's already stopped serving lunches ("The business wasn't there," he says) but has discovered that by keeping his kitchen open later than those of some of his competitors, he's capturing an unexpected late-night crowd.
Setting El Patron apart from other restaurants on the Boulevard are the parrilladas stainless-steel tabletop grills that the kitchen staff heaps with pork, chicken, steak, roasted chili peppers and cheese. The smaller grill can feed a couple of people; the bigger parrillada, the one that serves three or four, also includes fat grilled shrimp.
My friend Lou Jane, who spent some time in Buenos Aires last year, recognized the name. "In Argentina, the steakhouses are called parrilladas," she said. She had toyed with the idea of sharing the bigger tabletop grill with Debbie, Marilyn and me but decided against it after we all devoured way too many appetizers.