El Cazador in South Knoxville is an easy place to drive by, though it's not easy to miss owing to its very bright green paint job.
Longtime residents of the area may remember it as the spot to get your hot dog fix when it was Sam and Jerry's Deli. A lot has changed since that time: The new owners essentially gutted the building down to the floor (and under it, too) and rebuilt it from the inside. It still doesn't have any windows and there are bars on the door, both of which can be a little intimidating to the uninitiated. But, once you get past the doors, you'll be greeted by a cheery and remarkably clean space that's inhabited by great food and very friendly people.
Chef and owner Anatolio Sandre is the life of the party—he's an ebullient man that you can spy through a small pass window to the kitchen where he makes just about everything that you eat. Tortillas, salsas, tortas—everything is made in house, so the food is fresh, lively, and authentic. Don't let that authenticity scare you off, either—the menu is full of safely recognizable fare like fajitas, nachos, and burritos, but they're well executed. And Sandre's homemade tortillas add a grainy texture that will make the stuff you get at chain restaurants seem just sad in comparison. It's the difference between a homemade biscuit and one from a can.
As you sit down, you'll be greeted by the de rigueur oblation of chips and salsa, but at El Cazador you're also treated to a small bowl with a dollop of refritos in a pool of queso. And Sandre's salsa doesn't taste like every other table salsa in town. The newness owes a lot to the surprising but tasteful streak of black pepper—the intensity of that flavor can vary from visit to visit, but that's a reassuring sign that the restaurant hasn't resorted to a big plastic jug of massed-produced stuff from "New York City."
The menu is diverse and includes some really nice tacos—the camaron, chicharron, and barbacoa are particularly good—but there's not much that misfires here. If you order a meat-heavy entrée, you may find some extra fat and a chewy bit or two—but ultimately that's a testament to the delicious authenticity and homemade quality that makes El Cazador worth several visits.
Chicken Chimichanga: This is the most beautiful thing since a Krispy Kreme donut, seriously—when it comes to the table golden, crispy, and practically swimming in Cazador's thin but lovely queso, it looks glazed. And oddly, despite the inherent richness, it is as dangerously light as a well-made pastry. The chicken in this fried wrap, spiked with green chilies, is savory and cooked well. The rest of the plate is exactly what you expect—rice, beans, tomato and some avocado—but the chimichanga is really fine and, Siren-like, compels you to eat bite after bite in succession.
Molcajete Mixta: Feast. That's just the right word for this sizzling basalt bowl filled with everything: smoky and plump shrimp, beautiful carne asada, rich chunks of luxurious pork, spicy chorizo, peppers, onions, and a blistered jalapeño on top. It's so fabulous that you may find yourself stabbing hunks of meat straight from the bowl and forgetting the plate of tortillas and accompaniments that come with your order. It's one of the best uses of $14 you can find over the river and through the woods (and a walk through Ijams wouldn't be a bad idea after this massive and hard to finish dish).