by Mike Corrigan

Talk about low-key. Fiesta Charra (atop the Sunset Hill next to the Motel 6) is not only located on the western outskirts of town, it's also sort of hunkered down in a hole and partially obscured by a bunch of overgrown flora. Which of course makes it a perfect choice for diners looking to lay low in a quiet, out-of-the-way spot for unhurried, margarita-soaked lunches, far from the prying eyes of nosy relatives, truant officers, bosses and church leaders. Of course all this clandestine sport would mean nothing if the food at Fiesta Charra wasn't up to par. Fortunately, it is. Actually, we found it, and the service, much better than average.

Which was a pleasant surprise, actually, considering the mild trepidation we experienced as the three of us pulled up to the restaurant. See, the place is a little run-down on the outside, with peeling paint and a roof system that looks like it's definitely seen better days. Inside, however, it's a completely different story. While not fancy, Fiesta Charra's interior is spotless, uncluttered and decorated in a pleasant south-of-the-border style common to just about every Mexican restaurant I've ever seen. And at 3 pm on a recent sunny weekday afternoon, it could hardly have been more deserted.

Yet a waiter appeared almost immediately to welcome us, seat us in a nearby window booth and hand us menus. Within literally seconds of accomplishing that maneuver, our courteous gent had ice-filled glasses, a pitcher of agua and a basket full of hot tortilla chips and salsa in front of us. Excellent. The chips were good, too -- sturdy and crispy -- & ordm;and though Joel thought the salsa was a little watery, we all found it quite delicious, of low heat and obviously freshly made.

The lunch menu (good until 3 pm) features a variety of dishes from the main menu but at bargain prices. Most come with rice and beans. There are meat dishes along with burritos, enchiladas and tostadas (all in the $4.50-$7 range) and 10 different lunch combo specials -- again, served with rice and beans and priced right around $6 each. After ordering a round of margaritas, we split up and explored different menu sections, arriving finally at an enchilada, a burrito and arroz con pollo, that Mexican classic of rice with chicken.

My large chicken enchilada lived up to its name in two important ways: it was indeed large (almost as long as my iMac keyboard) and it was also filled with a generous amount of very high-quality chicken meat. I took special delight in the pollo because all too often in Mexican restaurants, a rolled tortilla becomes the perfect hiding place for all manner of inferior meats. Not so here. The corn tortilla was tender but held together nicely while the chicken filling consisted of lovely, blemish-free shredded breast meat. The enchilada sauce was rich and satisfying, if a little on the bland side.

Joel clearly wasn't man enough for his shredded beef (or "picadillo") burrito, which was packed to the gills with what had to have been nearly a pound of meat -- and little else. Maybe that's the authentic way of doing it, but it seemed like the accompanying rice and beans would have been better used inside of the tortilla, along with the meat and spices. As it was, he felt as if he were working on, like, maybe a whole ankle's worth of cow. But the best part of our Fiesta Charra experience -- aside from the frothy, slightly sour and entirely effective margarita -- were the refried beans. They were unusually thick, almost creamy, and instead of tasting bland, they had a deep, rich, earthy flavor. (Just another argument for why they should have been in with the beef.)

Sheri's arroz con pollo ($7) -- one of the "test dishes" she uses to gauge the efficacy of any given Mexican restaurant -- & ordm;was billed as a half-order meat dish but was nevertheless very substantial, served with rice, beans and a stack of warm corn tortillas. It came smothered in a deep red sauce that was almost like a curry. The spicy subtleties of the sauce brought out the best in its eponymous friend: strips of white meat chicken nestled in with saut & eacute;ed onions and green peppers over a fluffy bed of Mexican rice. This version, unlike others we've had, came without cheese, but was so good it was hardly missed.

As mentioned before, the service we encountered at Fiesta Charra was exceptional. Our waiter was helpful, attentive and efficient -- from the moment he seated us to the arrival of our complimentary trio of whipped cream-topped sopapillas and the check.

Looks like we might just have to sneak back there sometime soon.

Publication date: 05/26/05

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