Visitor's Treat

La Fuente is great for out-of-towners, but locals might want to look elsewhere for more zesty Mexican fare.

For more than 40 years, La Fuente has been one of the most satisfying places in Tucson to take out-of-town guests.

They invariably love its bewitching décor, in-tune mariachis and dependable upland/coastal standards from northwest Mexico. The service is efficient and gracious, the rooms surprisingly quiet--given the music and number of seats--and La Fuente takes reservations. If your company isn't up for standing in a crush for a half-hour at Mi Nidito, or cares more about ambience than food, La Fuente is the place.

So, when Arizona Gourmet came out with a December cover story about a new executive chef, revamped menu and higher standards in the kitchen at La Fuente, the obvious question was: Why? Why should the owners mess with what their loyal and very conservative customer base wants?

We looked into it, and as far as we can tell, the food is about the same as it's always been. The kitchen is still serving plentiful, unexciting Mexican standards, plus a few slightly upscale dishes that, aside from the deservedly respected chicken mole, aren't particularly well-executed. And the cooks are still barely trying when it comes to the three basics of Sonoran restaurant food: rice, beans and tortillas. Great Mexican restaurants serve deep-flavored beans, tasty rice and first-rate (if not handmade) tortillas. OK Mexican restaurants use them as plate-filler. That's what La Fuente does.

This is clearly fine with the restaurant's customers, who probably wouldn't want anything to be different. And that, after all, is hardly a crime. Lots of folks, especially foks from out of town, like their food on the mild and starchy side--however incomprehensible that may be to the rest of us. Tacquería Pico de Gallo, Café Poca Cosa and the great South Tucson Mexican restaurants have their clientele, and La Fuente has another.

Southern Arizonans who know their way around a pot of frijoles won't be knocked out, and neither will folks looking for anything remotely nouvelle. On a recent Saturday night, after a couple fine but strictly standard-issue house margaritas ($4.50) and a bowl of chips and delicious, juicy salsa, my husband and I split a bowl of menudo ($6.95) to warm our insides. The soup came with a generous side of chopped cilantro, green onions and lime, which was fortunate, because the broth was a little bland, the tripe a little scarce and the whole dish awfully heavy on hominy. (I like hominy, but it's daunting in heaps.)

For the main course, Ed ordered the Mole Poblano ($13.95), and found it excellent, as always. (He brings visitors to the restaurant at least once a year and always gets the mole.) The stewed, shredded chicken was moist and juicy, the sauce complex, rich, hot and deeply good. The sides of beans, rice and tortillas were there and not much more (see above).

I went out on a limb and got the Pipian Rojo, Estilo Puebla (grilled pork with a thick, creamy sauce of chile colorado and ground sesame and pumpkin seeds, $15.95). The meat was prettily served, fork-tender and juicy, but the exotic-sounding sauce was disappointingly bland--there was just less flavor than I was hoping for. The next day, sprinkled with some cayenne and table salt, the leftovers made more sense.

The Pipian came with grilled summer squash, red onion and corn, and the vegetables confirmed my skepticism about updating in the kitchen: Fresh, highest-quality ingredients are the cornerstone of contemporary cooking, but nobody seems to be controlling the quality of the produce coming into La Fuente. The squash slices on my plate were well-seasoned and hot off the grill, but had been cut from large, mature zucchini and crookneck squashes. The plain boiled corn on the cob was also on the elderly side--it was closer to gummy than crunchy--and the wedge of onion had not been properly trimmed before grilling. The outermost layer was inedible skin, and the next had a rotten spot.

None of this would make any difference to people who don't eat their vegetables, but many of us do, and we like our squash and onions and corn--like our rice and beans--to be prepared as carefully as the main dish. Nothing says "old-fashioned" like sides that are there just for color.

A few days later, I tried the lunch buffet ($7.95) with my friend Larry. We both got full, but neither of us was thrilled. Larry enjoyed his spinach enchilada, but he took the last one in the warming pan, so I didn't get to try it. (Darn that boy!) Nothing on my plate actually had much oomph: The stewed chicken for the make-your-own tostada tasted warmed-over, the calabacitas seemed not to have been seasoned. The tomatoes were pale and the chopped olives were of the black, canned, middle-American variety. (Years ago, a short-lived, wonderful little Yaqui joint on North Stone, the Yoeme Café, used to serve finely chopped green olives and crumbly white Mexican cheese with everything. Oh, where are the tacquerías of yesteryear?)

Hoping to finish lunch off on a positive note, I ordered flan ($3) for dessert, and was once again saddened: This lovely dish, which should have been warm and delicate, was cold and almost rubbery. The tasty caramel sauce on top couldn't make up for the custard's unlovely texture.

I'd honestly like to be more enthusiastic about the food at La Fuente, because the place is impossible not to love. You simply cannot do better if you want to take the in-laws out to treat them to expansive Southwest hospitality, or if you want to show the kids a big night. (Nice little girls sit up very straight at La Fuente, and the charming, exuberant rooms--all color and pierced tin lamps and fairy-lights--keep babies intrigued for hours.) The staff could not be nicer or faster, and the mariachis make it all seem extra-special. But if you're from here and you're picky, you'd be advised, at least for now, to stick to the mole.