Spiciest Dish in Columbus Series: El Vaquero
As the famous American Poet Robert James Ritchie Sr once said “I want to be a cowboy, baby.”
El Vaquero was another location where we saw hordes of people waiting outside of Cinco de Mayo, a good and bad problem to have. This time around things were cleared up and takeout was pretty easy. They are now open inside with socially distant seating and are following the “entrance is not an exit” format of keeping foot traffic moving in one direction. Most well known for their margaritas and other cocktails, El Vaquero has been serving Columbus since the 1990s, winning several awards including “Best Mexican Restaurant” from 614 Magazine in 2017 and 2018.
Creating “on the range” dishes, El Vaquero had several spicy dishes that had caught our eye and even has their own hot sauces that they sell in bottles. From the ranch to our takeout, we decided to saddle on up and see what El Vaquero had to offer.
The Lady of the Farm went with the Cochinita Pibil (#30), a marinated baked pork dish done “Yucatan” style. Typically this dish comes with red onions cooked with lime and habanero served on the side, but I neglected to check in the bag during pickup, so the spicy side ended up staying at the restaurant (no worries, these things happen). Not much heat from this dish by itself, but can definitely see it having a nice extra layer with that lime and hab combo.
The spicy dish that stood out the most was the Pollo a la Diabla, Chicken strips sautéed on hot diabla sauce. This order was served up with some refried beans and yellow mexican rice (the standard choice for my sides in most instances). Opening the container, the intense redness had me excited. We had tried the Camarones a la Diabla from Cuco’s, so we went with chicken at El Vaquero, figuring the choice of protein wouldn’t make much difference. Taking a whiff, the only thing I picked up on was tomato, never a good sign for spiciness. Hoping to preserve the heat, I snagged a few bites before mixing everything together.
First bite I noticed the thickness of the sauce, which was caked on pretty well to the chicken. The tomato base stands out and there’s some sweetness to it, but the heat hides. A couple more bites in, I was still waiting for the she-devil to appear and drag me away, but it never happened. I monched on some chips, dipping a few into the “hot” Diabla sauce to see if I could pull out some spiciness, but that didn’t work either. What heat there is, it’s a light chile de arbol type of burn that pops up then fades immediately. Overall, this is the type of “spicy” dish that just about anyone could eat unless mayonnaise is spicy to you. Mixed together with rice and beans, the spiciness fades even more, wandering into limbo, never to be seen again. We were ready to dump some of our fridge sauces on when suddenly…
Player 2 has entered the game! Remember the mention of El Vaquero having their own hot sauces earlier? Well, best as we can tell, this is their green habanero sauce. A nice pourable consistency, you can see the seeds floating around, swimming in a spicy pool of destruction. Based on the price of $3.50, we were expecting to snag this in a bottle, and while we’re pretty sure it’s their habanero sauce, it looked a lot different than the pictures. All of this to say, if this is not their habanero sauce someone please correct us so other folks can get in on this deliciousness.
There’s a great balance of tomato (maybe?), spices, and habaneros in this sauce. Spicy notes jotted down, I dumped about half of the container onto the chicken a la diabla, immediately tripling the heat of the dish. Dipping chips in was just as much of an experience and I found my upper cheeks starting to perspire a bit. Eating the other half of the cup of sauce, my nose was on the verge of dripping. It’s a great habanero heat that punches hard and then lingers. Several minutes after finishing the sauce off there was still a bit of a burn hanging around. Now, you’re not going to die from this sauce, but in terms of spicy offerings at El Vaquero, this will elevate any of the dishes to a level where a non-spice seeker is not going to want to go.
When reflecting on both the sauce and the Chicken a la Diabla, we made a tough decision. We’re going to rank El Vaquero based on the dish itself and not on the sauce add-on you can get. That said, we’re placing El Vaquero’s Chicken a la Diabla at #60, just above the Siam Orchid Crazy Noodles and below the Kraft House No. 5 Habanero Mac & Cheese. The habanero hot sauce is definitely tasty and highly recommended, but we focus on full dishes here.
You can find El Vaquero in any of their 17 locations, but in Columbus at any of the following:
3230 Olentangy River Road
9130 Dublin Road
420 Polaris Pkwy (at Cleveland Ave)
1566 Stringtown Road
375 Stoneridge Lane
3580 West Dublin Granville Road
1780 Hilliard-Rome Road
2195 Riverside Drive
Look below for more in our spiciest dish in Columbus series and hit us up if you have any suggestions that are not already on our list!
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