A bright-colored abstract oil painting by A. Vasquez is the focal point in the main dining room at tiny Coyote Flaco in Port Chester.
Jananne Abel|Westmore News
A bright-colored abstract oil painting by A. Vasquez is the focal point in the main dining room at tiny Coyote Flaco in Port Chester. Jananne Abel|Westmore News

There are now nine Mexican restaurants in Port Chester, but only a few have the longevity of Coyote Flaco, which will be celebrating its 25th anniversary in December.

It doesn’t look much different from the outside than it did 25 years ago, but tiny Coyote Flaco, located at 115 Midland Ave., has grown over the years, from a seating capacity of 20 to 30 inside and doubling from 25 to about 50 on the outside patio.

Twenty years ago, Coyote Flaco was more expensive than other Mexican restaurants in town, and owner Luis Lopez said it was because he had adapted traditional Mexican recipes to the discriminating tastes of his clientele, which he admitted was 90% American and only 10% Hispanic. The Hispanic percentage may have grown since then, but on weekend nights it is largely American.

The prices at other Mexican eateries have increased, so Coyote Flaco’s seem very reasonable, even though you can no longer get a single taco or tostada as you could two decades ago. In fact, neither of those traditional items of Mexican fare are even on the menu anymore.

Instead there are Mexican combos with chimichangas, enchiladas, tamales and chiles rellenos ($15-$20); entrées including three types of enchiladas served in pairs ($12-$14), a burrito California wrap ($12), a Quesadilla Linda ($14) and a taco salad with your choice of meat, veggies or avocado served in a baked nest flour tortilla ($12), fajitas ($15-$22), three kinds of steak ($17-$20), Pollo al Ajillo (chicken cutlet with garlic sauce, red peppers, green peas served with rice, potatoes and vegetables at $14), Salmon Ranchero (grilled salmon topped with ranchero and green tomatillo sauce served with rice, black beans and vegetables at $19) and Camarones al Ajillo ($20).

Four appetizers ($8 and $9), a kids’ menu and weekly specials including at least two soups such as black bean, tortilla and crabmeat chowder round out the offerings.

The prices of everything are a few dollars cheaper for lunch.

From the beginning Lopez made an effort to keep the food healthy, frying only in no-cholesterol corn oil, and he has taken great pride in the quality of the food he serves in his restaurant. His meats are top grade and his shrimp comes from Ecuador or the Gulf of Mexico. Those from Ecuador are white and more tender than shrimp caught in the U.S., he said.

Although I have my favorite dishes, I have never had a bad meal at Coyote Flaco. Everything is fresh-tasting, the sauces are savory and sometimes spicy but not overwhelmingly so, and nothing is heavy, so you don’t leave feeling stuffed.

For several years the restaurant only served wine and beer, but now it has a full liquor license, specializing in numerous types and flavors of margaritas by the glass ($7-$15), half pitcher ($18-$35) or full pitcher ($35-$60), mojitos ($9), martinis in eight fruit flavors ($8), red and white sangria ($8 glass, $18 half pitcher, $35 full pitcher) and Mexican beer ($5). Eighteen-ounce frozen margaritas ($18) come in six fruit flavors (lime, mango, strawberry, guava, passion fruit and cactus pear).

My favorite is the traditional lime margarita served straight up with salt ($8), and they are excellent here. Your chilled drink comes in a silver metal shaker that you pour yourself into a salted martini glass with a blue rim and a slice of lime.

Non-alcoholic beverages include sodas ($2.50), Pure Leaf iced teas ($2.75), juices ($3), Jarritos Mexican drinks ($2.75) and aguas frescas which includes homemade iced tea ($3).

Pleasant eclectic décor

Quarters are tight but surroundings pleasant inside Coyote Flaco, which was once a hamburger drive-in called Golden Boy.

In recent years I’ve always made a point of frequenting the casual Mexican eatery in the warmer months when you could eat outside on the patio, but in the past week I have also sat inside and rediscovered its quaintness.

The newest room is up a few steps from the main dining area and seats up to 12 in quiet quarters.

While originally you to go outside and around back to use the bathroom, harkening from the days when the location was a drive-in, it has since been moved inside.

The focal point of the main dining room is a beautiful bright-colored abstract oil painting by A. Vasquez. Metal fixtures with cut out suns in different designs hang on the walls along with bright red and green scarves. Walls are painted light green accented by darker green sponge painting. On the other side of the room is a glass covered wall of assorted tequilas and beers. Another similar display features tequila, soft drinks and Pure Leaf tea, and a sombrero hangs from a coat hook.

Tables are covered with plastic cloths boasting a colorful Mexican design over plain-colored salmon cloths and are set with magenta cloth napkins. Wooden chairs with cushioned seats pull up to the tables.

A wood floor and sheer green curtains pulled together at the windows complete the picture.

The spacious brick, eclectically decorated patio provides a fun or romantic experience, depending on the number of people, on a warm evening. Over the years I have spent many a memorable night with a large group of people sipping margaritas and eating Coyote Flaco’s Mexican delicacies there.

Seating is at a mix of long green picnic tables covered by olive and faded orange umbrellas and smaller tables for two or four covered with the same tablecloths as inside. These are set with ice cream or not-so-comfortable metal chairs with flower cutouts. They are shaded by two green awnings, one with a circle of lights inside to provide added atmosphere.

Trees around the patio as well as planters filled with flowers perched on top of the stone wall around it provide privacy from the nearby street even though you may occasionally hear cars and trucks passing by on semi-busy Midland Avenue.

Ethnic music plays in the background loud enough to notice.

Besides eating either inside or dining al fresco, Coyote Flaco does a big takeout business. In similar fashion as when this location was a drive-in, you can pick up your order at a walkup window outside. There used to be free delivery as well, but currently the restaurant is without a driver.

Two meals for two

Two recent meals for two at Coyote Flaco bore out my previous positive experiences. For the first my husband and I sat on the patio and shared three of our favorite so-called “margarita martinis,” according to our check (a reasonable $8 each).

A basket of crunchy homemade tri-colored tortilla chips was immediately served to our table with a small dish of homemade salsa (thin base with chunks of tomato, peppers and onions). There is never enough salsa, and you always have to ask for more.

Feeling crabby, we shared two specials: Quesadilla Acapulco ($12) and Enchiladas Cancun ($18).

For the former, an appetizer, a flour tortilla stuffed with crabmeat and cheese came cut in quarters. What I especially liked was that the mild flavor of the crabmeat shone through and you could taste the creamy melted cheese as well. If you wanted to spice it up, a large green spicy chile was cut open on the plate.

A trademark of Coyote Flaco is their small crispy (and edible) baked tortilla bowls which come with almost every dish filled with some tasty side. For the appetizer, one was filled with sour cream, another with their freshly made chunky guacamole for dipping. In the center of the plate rested a small, yet delicious salad of greens, carrot strips, onions, tomato, cotija cheese and mild guajillo (a Mexican chile) dressing.

The enchiladas, our main meal, brought two of them, each stuffed with crabmeat. One was made with a white flour tortilla covered in fresh green tomatillo sauce. The other featured a blue corn tortilla topped with a brown mole sauce which had a slight kick. Both were finished with melted cheese.

Guacamole, refried beans topped with cheese and a colorful black bean, corn, onion and red and green pepper salad filled three separate tortilla bowls. While these portions are small, and I found myself wanting more, you do get a generous mound of yellow rice in the middle of the plate as well.

Mexican fare, at least that made with tortillas, is never as good the next day, so it’s best to get only as much as you can eat or to share, as we did.

Our check came to $57.98.

Meal #2

On a humid Friday night, eating inside in air conditioning was a pleasure. For this meal, my husband and I shared the Chile Relleno appetizer ($8) and the Tampiquena Combo ($20).

The baked stuffed pepper can be filled with chicken, steak, pork, veggies, cheese, ground beef or chorizo. I chose ground beef. This delicacy is topped with red sauce and melted cheese for a mouthwatering combination and served with salad similar to the one that came with the Quesadilla Acapulco.

The combo includes tender, charcoal broiled, sliced skirt steak topped with a savory red sauce with onions, two slices of grilled chorizo and one Chicken Enchilada Suiza covered in green tomatillo sauce and melted cheese. These come with refried beans topped with cheese and guacamole in tortilla bowls plus a mound of yellow rice.

We ordered a half pitcher of red sangria ($18) to accompany our meal. The red wine is filled with apple and orange slices and served with short glasses garnished with a wedge of pineapple.

For dessert, we thoroughly enjoyed the apple chimichanga ($6), which was cut in half and served on a plate emblazoned with “Coyote Flaco” scrawled with raspberry sauce. Filled with apples, the sweet treat had a flaky crust that was crunchy and delicious. It was accompanied by a serving of Tartufo, chocolate and vanilla ice cream covered in dark chocolate, and sliced strawberries. Dessert was topped off with a warming Mexican coffee spiked with tequila ($6) and an equally satisfying cappuccino ($4).

The price of our meal without tip: $66.57.

The servers at Coyote Flaco are friendly and plentiful, and the efficient service is almost too quick.

Coyote Flaco’s beginnings

Since coming to the United States and Port Chester from his native Ecuador in 1982, Luis Lopez, 61, worked in the kitchens of a number of restaurants before opening Coyote Flaco in December 1991. Among them were the former French restaurant Jillyflowers in Harrison, La Camelia Spanish restaurant in Mt. Kisco, Meson Galicia, a Spanish restaurant in Norwalk, Conn., Pearl of the Atlantic Portuguese seafood restaurant in Port Chester, the former Mallard’s Restaurant at Arrowwood in Rye Brook and Morgan’s in Glenville. He also owned two restaurants in Ecuador before coming to this country.

When he worked at Arrowwood, Lopez went to Golden Boy for coffee in the morning. One day it closed. He started asking about the space and finally ended up renting it to open his own restaurant.

Although he was experienced in cooking continental and Spanish cuisine, he decided on Mexican fare because it was popular and less expensive.

“I went to Mexico for 40 days and I learned more how they cooked the food,” he said. While Lopez is still the head chef, he currently has two other guys doing the cooking in Port Chester.

The restaurant’s name, which means “skinny coyote,” came from that of a Mexican restaurant in Lopez’s hometown of Cuenca in the Ecuadorian mountains.

His son Jihnson, now 41, came over from Ecuador to help out when he opened Coyote Flaco. His wife came over next and his son Jaime, now 39, immigrated in 1995 followed by his son Christian, now 34. They are all involved in the business.

In December 1995, Lopez opened a second location in New Rochelle which his son Jaime managed and has since closed. Currently the family owns and operates four Coyote Flaco restaurants in New York. Besides Port Chester, there is one in Claverack near Hudson, another in Stanfordville north of Millbrook, both rural areas, and a fourth in Poughkeepsie which opened very recently. They all share a website: mycoyoteflaco.com.

Luis’s brother owns and operates a separate restaurant by the same name in Williamstown, Mass. in the Berkshires.

Hours and parking

Coyote Flaco is open Sunday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. It is closed Monday. There is a small parking lot on the premises and plenty of parking on Midland Avenue, which is free after 6 p.m.