Mexican Amusements

La Botana's double meaning means good food and good fun

According to La Botana's Web site, a botana is either an appetizer or an amusement, a joke of sorts. The second meaning is apparent as you read the menu: The C's in "taco" and "caramelos" are all K's. The combos are named "Juan," "Tu" and "Tri" ($7.95 each; add shrimp or grilled fish for $1.50).

But don't let all that humor fool you. The food here is good and delightfully different, offering choices from regions of Mexico other than just Sonora, with plenty of seafood mixed in. Dining here is a most pleasurable experience.

Regarding the appetizer definition of botana, there are several good choices, including the chips and a house chipotle bean dip (99 cents) and something called toritos gueritos ($6.95), which is served with the house "secret sauce."

The first is basically a basket of tortilla chips, and the house ranchero beans blended into a smooth dip. Little flecks of red—peppers, no doubt—are visible. It's spicy and smoky and, at that price, you can't beat it.

The toritos are five plump yellow peppers that have been stuffed with shrimp and lots of jack cheese. They are then wrapped with bacon, and grilled. The shrimp gets a little lost amid the heat of the pepper, the creaminess of all that cheese, and the wonderful sweet/saltiness of the crisp bacon, but still this is a fine dish. Our best guess at the secret sauce ingredients are soy sauce, lime or lemon juice, chopped garlic and onions and one or two other items we couldn't figure out.

La Botana calls itself a taco grill and cantina. The cantina part includes a tiny bar serving just beers, micheladas and margaritas amid equipales furniture, Latin-influenced music and a charming but noisy patio complete with an American twist: big-screen TVs and a fireplace. The tunes played are a bit of a distraction, at least for our tastes—too modern and with a resounding shout of "La Botana" every few songs, it sounded like a homemade mix.

The grill part, though, is spot on, with a variety of grilled items available. House specialty items predominately feature seafood.

You can BYOQ—build your own quesadilla ($4.95, or $3.50 with cheese only)—or BYOB—build your own burrito ($5.95/$3.50). "Meat" choices include thin bistek, pollo, carnitas, adobado, chorizo, chicharrón verde, red chile, guacamole and soy chorizo. You pick one. Other additions—pick as many as you want—include beans, rice, cheese, green onions, poblano, red onions, tomatoes, mushrooms and cilantro. Toppings include guacamole and sour cream ($1.25 each, $1.95 for both) or enchilada or chimi style ($1 each, $1.75 both). You can have all four for $3. Confusing? Yes. But it's a fun way to get exactly what you want.

Our burro choice was the thin bistek. We added only beans. The beef was tender, spicy and juicy. The ranchero beans were earthy and a delightful change from the ubiquitous refried beans. This was a simple burro, for sure, but nevertheless quite satisfying.

One seafood specialty is the canasta de pescado, or fish basket ($7.95). Tilapia filets are seasoned with a bit of heat and then grilled—almost blackened—to a perfect turn. The fish is both crispy and juicy and slightly sweet. The rest of the basket consists of OK fries and a fresh salad of shredded greens and such drizzled with a spiced-up creamy dressing. The filets in our basket had broken apart, which took away from the presentation but not the wonderful flavors.

The "Juan" combo comes with all those meat choices; we opted for shrimp cooked in butter then plopped into small, dark corn tortillas (you can choose flour if you like) along with a creamy dressing and a pico de gallo salsa enhanced with what seems to be jicama.

Daily specials ($4.99) are available. They come with rice and beans. One good choice is the shredded beef tacos. The shells of the tacos are darker than usual, but again a welcome change. Tender shredded beef is cooked in a red chili sauce that has just the right amount of heat and plenty of rich beefy flavor. Rice and ranchero beans come with the special. The pilaf-style rice was another change from the Spanish style found everywhere in town, but it was bland. The beans, on the other hand, were fantastic.

Other daily specials include a "wet" burrito, two gorditas, two tostadas and two cheese enchiladas. There are also Happy Hour specials (99-cent beers, tacos, margaritas, nachos and hot dogs from 2 to 5 p.m.) and on Saturday and Sunday, margaritas are two-for-one all day long.

Service on all visits was friendly, if a little rushed. There's a good-sized menu, and with all those mix-and-match things going on it does take a little time to peruse it all. But overall, every visit was positive and fun.

La Botana is at a site where several other Mexican joints have come and gone. Why that happens one never really knows, but we're hoping La Botana has better luck. With the different choices and styles offered here, that shouldn't really be a problem. And that's no botana.