La Isla Bonita

Café Bonita provides folks on the southeast side with hit-and-miss Mexican food.

The folks who live in the Rita Ranch area, located on the booming southeast side, obviously appreciate Café Bonita. A recent weekday visit at lunchtime revealed a packed house full of happy customers.

After joining those happy customers, and returning a day later for a dinner to go, I can see why the place was so busy. It's a nice little restaurant, reasonably priced, and some of the food was delicious and well-prepared.

But the door swings the other way: On both my trips there, I encountered serious glitches, leaving my feelings on Café Bonita decidedly mixed.

On my first trip, I met Weekly columnist Connie Tuttle at the restaurant, which is located in the back corner of a shopping center. We were seated at one of the few remaining tables at the restaurant and given our menus. Some 17 lunch specials are at the top, ranging in price from $5.95 to $7.50. Below are the entrees, featuring "signature" enchiladas, "signature" tacos and "signature" giant burros/chimichangas. (How can half your menu be made up of "signature" entrees?) Taco salads, burgers and three appetizers (quesadillas, nachos and cheese crisps) are also for sale, as are a handful of deserts.

As we pondered our options, our server brought us chips and salsa, and we ordered our drinks. The salsa reminded me of spaghetti sauce--it was thicker than usual and not the least bit chunky with a strong tomato taste. It was a smidgen spicy, but not too much. Connie noted that cilantro, a salsa staple, was "noticeably absent." (Upon close inspection, I did see some green flecks that could have been cilantro; if it was, it was added so finely that it couldn't be tasted.)

The server returned with drinks--not our drinks, mind you, but someone's drinks. Connie ordered a Pepsi, and I an iced tea, and we each got Diet Pepsis. We pointed out the common, no-big-deal error, and the server quickly brought us the correct drinks. We then ordered: Connie got the green chile burro lunch special ($6.50), and I ordered the chicken enchilada and chicken rolled taco lunch special ($6.35). We also ordered an appetizer, a cheese crisp ($5.95).

Our orders taken, we then had a chance to chat and take in the atmosphere. Café Bonita looks like your typical shopping center Mexican joint--it features wooden, uncovered tables, metal-frame chairs and orange walls with blue trim. (Is someone a Denver Broncos fan back there?) A fake tree sat behind me, and a TV turned to a cable news channel hung in the corner in front of me.

After we chatted a while, our cheese crisp was delivered. It was huge--a 16-inch crisped tortilla covered with a thin later of melted cheese. We quickly dug in. I've become something of a cheese crisp expert--we enjoy them in the office on a regular basis--and this one was a bit of a disappointment. It was oily and slightly floppy, making it something less than a "crisp." It tasted OK, though.

Then came the glitch.

Less than a minute after our cheese crisp arrived, our server--without apology or explanation--brought our entrees. Now I am not picky when it comes to restaurant service, but this bothered me, as this is a major service faux. It means you can't savor the food, and it means things get cold.

We put the crisp aside and moved on to our meals. My chicken enchilada was quite tasty--the chicken was moist and well-cooked. The red sauce and two cheeses were also flavorful, and overall, I was happy with it. My rolled taco, on the other hand, was less than stellar: It was as dry as a bone. The beans were standard-issue (although they were already developing a crust when served), but the rice--full of onions--was soft and tasty.

Meanwhile, Connie was enjoying her burrito. The marinated meat, she said, was sweet, moist and flavorful; she deemed it "excellent." Her only complaint, and it was a minor one, was that it could have possibly used a bit more green chile, seeing as it was called a green chile burro.

Full but determined to be intrepid reviewers, we pressed forward and ordered the dessert, with Connie choosing the sopapillas ($4.50) and me going with the caramel flan ($4.50). They arrived quickly, and we were both impressed--and stunned, at the size of the sopas. She was delivered six of the huge, hollow, cinnamon-coated chunks of fried dough, with the honey coming in two small cups on the side. They were well-prepared, light and airy, and while we only managed to eat two of them, they were quickly devoured by co-workers when I took them back to the office. My flan was perfectly sized and just as good. Served with two sugar cookies and topped with caramel, the flan was thick and delicious--not too sweet and not the least bit watery.

As Connie and I said our goodbyes and I walked back to the car with the leftover cheese crisp slices and sopas, I decided Café Bonita was worth another visit. The next night, I called in and ordered a chicken quesadilla ($5.95) and the chile rellenos entrée ($8.99). They were ready when I arrived; I paid and took them home.

I excitedly opened the packages of wrapped food when I arrived home at my humble abode. First up was the quesadilla. It was a no-frills type of deal--guacamole and sour cream cost extra--so I slathered some salsa on the folded tortilla and dug in. It was well-cooked--golden brown and crisper than our crisp was--but the chicken was far from abundant. The chicken that was there tasted fine, nice and moist, but there wasn't enough for my liking.

Then, I dug into the rellenos. Covered in cheese and red sauce, they looked delicious from the top.

Looks can be deceiving.

The peppers were somewhat tough, and as I dug deeper, I discovered the breading on the bottom was black--it was burnt. This screwed up the taste; while it was edible, it was far from good. If I had been at the restaurant, it would have been sent back; in this case, that was not an option. Thus, I set them aside and ate my rice and beans, which were just as good as they were the day before.

My experiences at Café Bonita were frustrating. There is much to recommend about the place, but the serious errors--the burnt rellenos, especially--are enough to give me pause. I hope I just had bad luck, because Café Bonita clearly has a lot going for it.