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Out to Lunch with Bethel Poston: You’ll have trouble choosing from Picante’s vast menu

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While working on an “Out to Lunch” article at a Rockwood restaurant, Jonathan Johnson, a U.S. Food Service salesman, asked me if I knew about a new restaurant in Oliver Springs.

“Picante Mexican Grill has just opened in the previous location of Choice’s Café,” he said. I wrote about Choice’s in October 2008.

Picante’s is in Morgan County, within walking distance of Roane County, on Winter Gap Road (Hwy. 62). Head north out of Oliver Springs at the stoplight going toward Wartburg. You can see the Grill from the light, on the right.

Picante is a Spanish word for spicy.

I invited a few friends with Oliver Springs connections to go with me on this “Out to Lunch” adventure. Ellis Mae Darby Stonecipher was my fourth-grade sweetheart at Highland View School in Oak Ridge. She married Nathan Stonecipher, an outstanding Oliver Springs athlete who later went to Wyoming on a football scholarship.

Nathan and Ellis have become part of our Oak Ridge High Reunion group since they moved back to Tennessee after living in Las Vegas for many years.

Ellis ordered one of the Almuerzos — lunch specials — which included an enchilada, a taco, Mexican rice and refried beans.

Nathan went for a tamale with Mexican rice and refried beans. It seems like rice and beans come with all Mexican dishes.

According to Wikipedia, a tamale or tamal is a traditional Latin American dish made of a starchy dough, usually corn-based, which is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper. The wrapping, Wikipedia said, is discarded before eating.

Wikipedia continues, “Tamales can themselves be filled with meats, cheese, vegetables, chilies or any preparation according to taste.”

From their time in Nevada, with the Mexican influence, I’d bet the Stoneciphers understand about all the dishes on Picante’s extensive menu and don’t need to read my tamale research.

I had also asked Nathan to invite some other folks from Oliver Spring to go “Out to Lunch” with us.

His friend, Don Collins, is retired from management of Tennessee Valley Communications Leasing, a mining operation based in Oliver Springs.

Don chose Nachos Supremos, made with a combination of beef, chicken and beans and served with lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole, sour cream and tortillas.

Mary Kate and Harold Ray Smith, also Nathan’s guests and his former Oliver Springs classmates, shared a large plate of chicken fajitas that could easily feed four people.

The grilled chicken fajitas dish is prepared with onions, tomatoes and bell peppers and served with Mexican rice, refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, guacamole and tortillas. Steak and shrimp fajitas are also available.

My wife, Carol, and I invited Mimi Small Brock, a former Oak Ridge High School classmate of ours who was a longtime teacher in Roane County’s Little Emory Elementary School and librarian at Oliver Springs Elementary.

Mimi had quesadillas served with sour cream, guacamole and pico de gallo, with a tossed salad on the side. (What? No rice and beans?)

Back to Wikipedia: “A quesadilla is a flour or corn tortilla filled with a savory mixture of cheese and other ingredients, then folded in half to form a half-moon shape.”

Queso is Spanish for cheese.

Picante’s opened last April and is owned by Ingrid Banales from Costa Rica, who also owns Los Primos in Harriman. Hugo Santillan is the manager.

“She and her husband, Noe, would not have opened Los Primos if he had not exited at Hwy. 27 to turn around after passing the Kingston exit in error,” I wrote in my August 2008 column on Los Primos.

“He saw the empty building and knew they had to open a restaurant here, leaving the La Carreta Restaurant in Gatlinburg. After six months of remodeling, Los Primos opened in September 2006.”

Picante’s opens at 11 a.m. everyday and closes at 10:30 p.m. most evenings, except Friday, when it stays open until 11 p.m., and at 10 p.m. Sunday.

Domestic and imported beer is served along with standard beverages. The restaurant seats 65 people inside and 20 on the outdoor patio, weather permitting.

We got there before our crowd, and Carol was seated alone sipping ice tea when a gentleman came in and nodded hello to her. It took a minute for both of them to put a name to each other.

Don Jackson grew up in Coalfield and now lives south of Kingston off River Road. He is married to the former Madge Adams, another of my grade-school sweethearts. Don was meeting his daughter Rhonda Oliver, a mortician at Jackson Funeral Services (formerly Jackson-Oliver Mortuary) of Oliver Springs.

“I didn’t eat Mexican until Picante’s opened and now eat here at least twice a week,” Rhonda said. The day of our visit, she had Ensalada San Markos, grilled chicken strips on a bed of lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and avocado slices, served fajita-style that includes grilled onions, tomatoes and green peppers.

Her dad went for the tamale with rice and beans. Don and Nathan also knew each other.

Carla Collins, Penny Pillman, Luann Defalco and Marie Patterson, dental assistants for Smith & Smith Family Dentistry of Oliver Springs, were seated nearby. They had all just finished Ensalda San Markos salads.

“We’re stuffed,” Carla said.

“We eat here two or three times a week,” added Marie, who lives in Rockwood. “They just bring us food without us seeing a menu.”

Juana Villegas, our server, was born in Guanajuato, Mexico. He told me the Molcajete — a lava rock heaped with grilled seasoned steak, chicken, shrimp and chorizo with onions, tomatoes and bell pepper — is a top specialty item. Served with Mexican rice, refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, guacamole and tortillas, it sounds like it could feed a family.

Carol chose the grilled steak fajitas with the standard sides. I had a plate with a chile relleno, a taco, rice and beans. Even after eating some of it I still didn’t know what was in a chile relleno.

My Wikipedia research says it “consists of a roasted green ... chili pepper stuffed with cheese ... and ... minced meat, covered in an egg batter, and fried.” I only ate a bite to save room for dessert.

Without asking Carol, I ordered for us to share the Pancho Villa Cheesecake, drizzled with strawberry sauce and served with ice cream. She says I did good.

The banana chimichanga was tempting. It’s a banana in a deep-fried tortilla shell, rolled in cinnamon and sugar then drizzled with caramel syrup.

Picante Mexican Grill has one of the most lengthy menus I have seen, including a kids section, soups, salads, appetizers, even fried eggs topped with Ranchero sauce and, of course, served with rice and beans.

I don’t remember seeing a hot dog or a bowl of chili on the menu, but I do remember the sopapilla, a flour tortilla deep fried with honey, cinnamon and butter and served with ice cream.

On my next visit to Picante’s, I guess I’ll have to have some more rice and beans before I can order dessert.
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Bethel Poston is a Roane County businessman and entrepreneur who writes about places of interest in our area. E-mail suggestions and comments to postonplace@bellsouth.net.