Hot and Not So Hot

Little Mexico Steakhouse's Mexican fare doesn't impress—but the steaks and seafood sure do

It is easy in Tucson to find a Mexican restaurant slinging burritos, enchiladas and tacos with some refried beans and Mexican rice.

However, it is hard to find ones that have truly outstanding food. Most restaurants seem afraid of bringing a little heat; they cater to Scoville-unit-fearing tourists more than locals. Well, Little Mexico Steakhouse is certainly not superior in their execution of "traditional" Mexican-food-menu items, but they execute well when thinking outside of the box with their steakhouse grub.

My first trip to Little Mexico Steakhouse, at the corner of Mission and Valencia roads, yielded little more than standard border-style Mexican food. Watching the diverse crowd chow down on the bustling weekend afternoon gave me hope that the food would be delicious and plentiful. Once seated, we spent a good while looking over the extensive menu, which is split between Mexican food and steakhouse fare.

About 20 minutes later, a server finally appeared to take our order, and came back about 10 minutes later, carrying only a basket of chips, salsa and a spicy sour cream/salsa mix. Our margaritas ($5), or glasses of water at the least, would have been extremely welcome, since the chips were salty, and the dips just a smidgen warm. The small guacamole fresca ($4.95) we ordered as an appetizer might also have paired nicely with the chips at that time.

When our entrées, water, margaritas and appetizer finally arrived (all at once), we eagerly dug into the guacamole, in a small bowl topped with crumbled queso fresco, as we waited for our steaming plates to cool. The guacamole, despite its lovely, creamy, chunky texture and bright, appetizing color, was lacking in flavor. A little more lime juice or salt would have worked wonders. We left the guacamole and dug into our entrées. The green chile con carne combination plate (no. 9, $9.25) was a pile of rather unappetizing stewed beef chunks with just a touch of tomatoes, green chilies and onions, served with the standard refried beans and Mexican rice, and one large flour tortilla. Expecting the large squares of beef to be tough, I took a hesitant bite ... but they were not bad. Relatively tender and mildly flavored, the beef was certainly short of spectacular, but on par with other Tucson Mexican-food offerings.

Ted's Little Mexico combo plate (no. 17, $10.95) included a cheese enchilada, a ground-beef taco, a chile relleno and a red chile tamale. The taco was hot and crunchy, and reminded me of tacos from my family's "taco night" growing up—it was more like something my dad would make than something I'd expect at a Mexican restaurant. The enchilada and chile relleno were both tough and chewy, and the cheese overpowered all the other flavors. The red chile tamale was the highlight of the plate, although it featured mild, subtle flavors. It could have used some more spice, both for a little heat and flavor.

We left generally unimpressed. On our second visit, for a late weeknight dinner, we were the only people in the restaurant—which is usually not a good sign. Having worked in many kitchens, I know that the cooks are moaning and groaning about that last table, trying to push the food out as quickly as possible, often sacrificing taste and quality. Fortunately, this was not the case here. We started off with a Dos Equis draft ($4.50 for 24 ounces) and a Little Mexico cheese crisp, which featured tomatoes, onions, green chilies and carne seca ($7.95). The carne seca was crisp and salty, but lacked the depth of beefy flavor that carne seca can have. The rest of the cheese crisp was, well, cheesy and crispy—unremarkable, but crispy, cheesy things are always good.

Now, the good news: Little Mexico may have mediocre Mexican food, but they excel at the steakhouse fare.

Our entrées came out quickly, but not so fast that we felt like we were being rushed. I ordered the camarones mojo de ajo (grilled garlic shrimp, $14.95), and a plate of six gigantic, butterflied and grilled-in-shell shrimp came out, smothered in chopped garlic. The smell alone was intoxicating. Instead of the usual refried beans, there was a nice cup of ranchero-style beans, with almost as much bacon as beans in the cup. The shrimp were perfectly grilled, and the garlic was not overpowering, adding a deep, sweet garlicky flavor to the shrimp. The beans were a perfect complement, salty and smoky from the bacon. I didn't even touch the Mexican rice or tortilla that accompanied.

Ted's steak ranchero, a 16-ounce grilled T-bone served with salsa ranchera ($18.95), was a huge, hot portion of steak smothered in huge chunks of tomato and onion. The steak, cooked perfectly to medium-rare, had an incredible smoky, deep flavor, and was tender and delicious. The extra-large, extra-chunky salsa ranchera complemented the steak perfectly, and the potatoes were well seasoned, crispy on the outside and creamy in the middle, almost like thick potato chips.

I was looking forward to dessert, since there was a scrumptious-looking selection of flan, fruit chimis, fried ice cream and sopapillas (all $3.95)—I have a weak spot for sopapillas especially—but our server never returned, except to drop off our check. The kitchen had been closed, illustrating one of the reasons why I dislike being at the last table in a restaurant.

If Little Mexico Steakhouse focused more on their steakhouse items and less on producing run-of-the-mill Mexican food, they could truly be something special.

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