In my tour of McHenry County's Mexican eateries, El Niagara in Woodstock was a definite stopping off point. For starters, they are doing well enough to open another site at the Commons in Algonquin. So something clearly is going right.
But we had to check it out ourselves. We went on a Monday night, one of the slowest nights for any restaurant, and our group of five was seated in the dining room pretty quickly. Most of the booths in the main restaurant area already were taken.
Soon after being seated, we had waters and both chips and salsa – hot and mild – on the table to get started. The service was friendly and hustling between tables, for sure, which gave us time to decide.
One thing we found that most places don't have is a combination plate on the kids menu. One of our diners order that – which included half of a quesadilla, two loaded-up nachos and rice and beans – while another ordered the quesadilla kids meal.
We also ordered a pair of three-taco dinners ($7.25 each) with beef, one loaded up with all the fix-ins on flour tortillas and another with just the beef and cheese folded into corn tortillas.
I had to be different, of course, and go with the steak chimichanga with melted cheese.
I stuck with water while three of our diners ordered lemonade, which came in a can with glasses and ice and another ordered a margarita on the rocks with salt.
I also made an impulse order and started us out with queso flameado, which I tried to act like we would share but I really knew I would end up eating most of it.
It was the first dish to arrive, a warm plate with melted cheese and a ton of chorizo mixed in along with a basket of tortillas. One of my fellow diners filled up some of his chips with the delicious melty mix. But I overflowed a few tortillas for myself.
The chorizo was spicy enough that I was happy they brought a pitcher of water to the table for us, but not too much so that I couldn't handle it. I'm pretty sure I would have been happy with that as my full meal because it hit the spot.
A few minutes later, our main courses arrived and we dove right in. The combo kids meal was gone in a flash. He loved it. The quesadilla kids meal was eaten a little slower because the rice and beans were the real draw. In fact, I shared some of my rice in beans with that diner too before she started into the quesadillas.
I was told the tacos were worth a thumbs up while my chimichanga was outstanding. The steak was quality and not over-seasoned. The shell wasn't too crispy, it was just right, and having the sauce and melted cheese on top was a great touch.
We had some leftovers and filled a to-go box with them before ordering a dessert to share, fried ice cream with sopapillas. Not everyone at the table knew if they wanted in on the dessert until it arrived, with a bottle of honey on the side.
They smelled it, saw it and grabbed a plate and a sopapilla quickly before they were gone. It was real fried ice cream, with the crumbles on the outside and a cherry on top. The perfect way to finish off a fantastic meal.
The only problem was, in our rush to finish up and head out, i forgot our box of leftovers. Too bad, because I was regretting it the next day at lunch when I ate something far less appetizing. I won't make that mistake again.
• The Mystery Diner is an employee at the Northwest Herald. The diner’s identity is not revealed to restaurant staff before or during the meal. The Mystery Diner visits a restaurant and then reports on the experience. If the Mystery Diner cannot recommend the establishment, we will not publish a story.
WHAT: El Niagara Mexican Restaurant
WHERE: 118 First Street, Woodstock
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
INFORMATION: Call 815-338-9881