For the Birds

Don't bother even taking your pet pigeon for lunch at La Placita Cafe.

IN A TOWN THAT LAYS claim to some of the finest Mexican food in the country, you have to be a pretty tough competitor to keep a Mexican-style restaurant thriving. For 14 years La Placita has identified itself as a restaurant that serves "Mexican food of distinction." Naturally, one expects to find a meal that is more than run of the mill.

It's been several years since I dropped by La Placita, but I was relieved to see nothing had really changed. The venue still held its charm, a little bit of Old Mexico and a wash of the vibrant colors and images we embrace as signature of the Old Pueblo. The menu, too, looked familiar, and seeing as I was visiting with an old friend, we ordered what we thought would be a comforting meal for two.

Wanting to try something light, we ordered the Ensalada Topopo de Camaron ($10.99), a twist on taco salad. Served in a large deep-fried tortilla basket (a touch I find pedestrian at best, loathsome the rest of the time), the topopo tried to be cheerful. The shrimp, all three of them, were plump, but the rest of the salad was a wash of tired vegetables, topped off with a large spoonful of cottage cheese. Cottage cheese? Perhaps La Placita has spent too long in an enclave of shops that cater to a certain gentility, but cottage cheese tastes and looks odd in a taco salad. No matter what side of the tracks you're from.

Things didn't improve much with the Chile Verde Vegatarianas Enchiladas ($8.99). We had hoped for some actual chile verde, which wasn't present. Oh, a few canned flecks of Anaheim chile appeared here and there, but they might as well have been green bell pepper for any kick they added to the dish. The enchilada filling ended up being a greasy sauté of what my mother would call "kitchen sink" vegetables: the sad, the weary, what gets left behind in the sink. Served with rice and beans, the two lonely enchiladas on this plate just didn't deserve to be priced this high.

Feeling as if we really hadn't eaten anything, we ordered the Tacos de Pescado ($6.95). Fish tacos are usually a big favorite, and these were OK. True, there were only two tacos on the plate, which priced these babies at about $3.50 each. For a simple flour tortilla and a scant spoonful of sautéed fish and shredded cabbage tossed with a salsa mayonnaise, this felt criminal. Still, it's hard to ruin a taco. We were hungry. They got eaten.

Dessert yielded deep-fried ice cream and tres leches cake. Rolled in something we could only identify as ground nuts, the ice cream had been fried crispy and mottled a strange hue. My dining companion maintained that it was palatable. The tres leches cake, a moist and creamy version, was a pleasant diversion until we were served the $50 bill, a stiff price for a simple lunch à deux.

Being a stalwart and generally reasonable person, I returned to La Placita on the chance that perhaps I had just hit an off day. Maybe a key line cook was ill or the restaurant had been particularly short-handed. Maybe the food would radically alter itself under the hands and guidance of a different crew. But, sadly, my repeat experience was no more impressive than the first.

This time we dallied with appetizers. We ordered the jalapeños stuffed with seafood ($7.99). Since we hadn't managed to find any kind of heat in the meal before, this time we decided to order something that would force the hand to deliver. What arrived was unrecognizable at first. Six fat little golden loaves appeared on a platter. Once we dug into them they revealed themselves to be heavily breaded jalapeños stuffed with a thready, gritty mixture claiming to be from some unidentifiable seafood group. The jalapeños had been roasted and were zippy, but any flavor was lost in the thick breading. These portended a sorrowful meal to come.

The Camarones al Mojo de Ajo ($16.95), a "Mexican style scampi," ended up being six shrimp sautéed until rubbery and served in a garlicky butter sauce. Served with beans and rice, this plate provided only gloomy testimony as to how to ruin perfectly good shrimp.

The Pescado Cabrilla Estilo Hermosillo ($15.99) held promise: cabrilla sautéed with tomatoes, chiles and onions sounded heartening and more colorful than other items on the menu. The sauce was zippy and light, but the fish had a freezer-burned texture even the hearty sauce couldn't hide.

Again we departed, laden with leftover bags called "bird food" among the initiated.

Again we had parted having paid around $50 for a mediocre lunch for two.

It is difficult to write about a thoroughly mediocre experience. One bores oneself. While nothing was utterly offensive at La Plactia, the general experience was that the food was over-priced and fairly innocuous; nothing presented itself as particularly redeeming. In many ways, La Placita seems tired of itself, and this is reflected in all levels of the operation.

This general observation extends to service as well. During one lunch rush, we needed a server's attention. While three servers had been noted during the flurry of seating and initial serving, suddenly there was no one visible on the floor. For a full 10 minutes, no one appeared. No one. Then, suddenly, in a swoop, all three waiters rematerialized and bustled about as if they'd never left the room. True, they weren't literally wiping their mouths, but one can only imagine what would detract the entire floor staff, simultaneously, during a rush for such a protracted amount of time. Odd? Yes. Forgivable? Maybe. That little extra touch that will yield a return visit? No.

Was there anything redeemable about visiting La Placita? Well, the décor is cute. The windows offer up a good view. There's plenty of parking. And when you're done pecking at your plate, you can box up the leftovers, sit by the charming fountain in the atrium and feed the birds. They look like they're used to it.