It's a Party In Your Mouth

by Mike Corrigan

You've seen it, right? That new glowing orange Mexican restaurant at the top of South Grand between St. John's Cathedral and Lindaman's? Well, so have I. And after just one visit to the new Fiesta Mexicana, I can tell you frankly that you're not going to miss the former occupant one bit.

The owners here have done much, in fact, to dress up and enliven the place. The Cheetos Cheese Puffs hue that coats the building inside and out might be a little startling at first, but you get used to it pretty quickly. The restaurant's clean, bright and festive d & eacute;cor, accented with colorful ceramics, velvet paintings and flowers everywhere have (in just four months since the restaurant opened) completely eradicated the Americanized fast food Mexican vibe leftover from the building's previous tenant. Only the booths inside and the green, Saguaro-shaped, white rock-filled planter in the flowerbeds next to the parking lot remain as reminders of earlier days.

As soon as we were seated, we were greeted by the cheerful and efficient wait staff, who swiftly took drink orders and loaded us up with menus, water and complimentary warm tortilla chips and fresh-made salsa. "Well," I said, "they certainly have the service down. And the chips and salsa are delicious." (Chips: warm sunshine golden, crisp, lightly salted. Salsa: smooth, kinda fiery, excellent.)

The menu represents good value and variety. We took sweet our time poring over the long list of very reasonably priced lunch specials (served weekdays from 11 am-3 pm) printed on the backside of the tri-fold menus while trying our best to resist the urge to peek inside. "I'm not going to do it," said Amy. Too late. Sheri and I were already there. "Man, there's a lot going on here," said I. "Oh!" exclaimed Sheri. "They have flan." Indeed they did. Topping the list of desserts (which also includes deep-fried ice cream and an apple chimichanga) was the intriguingly fluffy flan: light Mexican egg custard glazed with a bit of caramel and finished with a dollop of whipped cream for $2.25. Ah, but the impressive-sounding dessert was not on our list that day. For we were there to fill up on Fiesta Mexicana's more savory offerings.

Among the lunch specials (nearly all come with refried beans, Mexican rice and coleslaw) we collectively and seriously considered the $5.75 Huevos Rancheros (and Chorizo Rancheros), the $6.75 Beef Carnitas (grilled meat, peppers, onions, guacamole and salsa with beans, rice and tortillas) and the $6.25 Chile Verde (pork loin in green tomatillo sauce with peppers and onions on tortillas). But ultimately, it was the Enchilada & amp; Tamale combo ($5.75), the Avocado Tostada ($5.75) and the Arroz con Pollo ($6.75) that made the cut. We also ordered a side of guacamole to accompany our chips and salsa. (Guacamole: mild, fresh, creamy.)

My enchilada was stuffed with high-grade shredded all-white chicken meat and came topped with red sauce and melted cheddar. The tender, moist corn tamale was wrapped in its protective husk and filled with shredded pork. Both were wonderful, if a little bland (more sauce on the enchilada would have helped), but were easily spiced up with an application of that terrific salsa. The accompanying rice and beans were of superior quality (particularly the rice, which was the best I've ever had in a Mexican restaurant).

Sheri's choice, the Avocado Tostada (with optional shredded beef), was a crunchy corn affair with beef, lettuce, cheese and guacamole. It included a bit of Mexican coleslaw (nicely zingy, with a sweet vinegar dressing that was a refreshing departure from the usual gloppy mayonnaise concoction). The whole thing comes with the usual rice and beans combo. There was but a single complaint: The menu promised sliced avocados, when in fact it was topped with a dollop of guacamole. Which was fine with Sheri -- but someone else might make an issue about it someday.

The Arroz con Pollo (rice with chicken for you infidels) that Amy ordered was a typically generous helping of chicken breast morsels prepared in a mild sauce with fresh mushrooms, onions, green peppers and melted cheddar over a bed of rice and garnished with sliced avocado and tomato. Served with warm tortillas for easy wrapping, this dish was hands down the most visually striking of the three. She reported on the dish's great textures and flavors (even as the party in her mouth was raging). Moreover, she had her fill while managing a neat trick: the pleasure of taking a little bit of Fiesta Mexicana home in a Styrofoam box.

Publication date: 05/29/03