Leaving Las Vigas

Poor, undercooked food shows this new restaurant needs serious improvement.

Before we start things off, let me point out that we should be rooting for the folks at Las Vigas Steak Ranch. The owner, Hector Martinez, asked us to review his restaurant so he could get some feedback on how things are going at the 9-month-old joint. He wants to get things right. That's commendable.

That being said, the restaurant, which seeks to be a Mexican steakhouse of sorts, has some serious room to improve.

I met Connie Tuttle there for lunch on a recent Friday. We were promptly seated in the brightly colored restaurant. Yellow walls mix with pottery, ropes, animal antlers and sequined hats to give the place a bizarre feel. Understated décor, this ain't. It's like someone mixed an IHOP with a Black Angus and threw in a little Weinerschnitzel to boot.

As we stared at the interesting décor, our server brought us tortilla chips and salsa. The salsa, which had a light consistency, had a kick. Connie said it was "piquant," which the dictionary defines as "pleasantly pungent or tart in taste; spicy." The chips were fresh and crispy. It was a nice start to things. Unfortunately, it was the start of a gradual descent.

For an appetizer, we decided to split the guacamole, quesadilla and chicharones combo ($7.75). Both Connie and I ordered the tortilla soup, too. The appetizers were delivered promptly; we both enjoyed the soup, which had a chicken broth base containing cilantro, cheese, tomatoes and the requisite tortilla chunks. Some tortilla soups are quite thick; this was thin, yet delicious.

The appetizer plate was a mixed bag. The guacamole was fine, although it was pretty standard; I've had better, I've had worse. The quesadilla--melted beans and cheese in a flour tortilla--was equally so-so. However, the chicharones were decidedly yucky. The menu described them as "Home Style Beef Cracklins." The server described them as "fried pork skins."

Beef? Pork? Whatever they were, they were cooked beyond a crisp. Almost too chewy to eat, they tasted like grease. The lime served along with them didn't help, unless you're into citrus-flavored grease. And the presentation was also lacking. Connie didn't even want to try them; they looked so unappetizing.

We hoped for better things from the entrees. Connie ordered the special, which was a chile relleno with two chicken enchiladas, rice, refried beans and flan for dessert ($7.99). I decided to order off the dinner menu and get the steak and shrimp ($15.25), a 12-ounce top sirloin with four jumbo shrimp. It came with a side, and I chose a baked potato over the beans, vegetables, rice and other potatoes offered. The restaurant also serves Sonoran-style dinner platters, other steaks, salads, burritos, chimichangas, sandwiches and burgers, making for an admirable selection.

Connie, who prides herself a chile relleno connoisseur, was not impressed with her meal. She found the relleno breading to be soggy and the chile to be bland. She said the beans and enchiladas were "standard issue," and that the highlight of her meal was the rice. She described it as light, fluffy and flavorful.

She got the better of our two meals; mine was a near disaster. The shrimp was so-so, with uninspired breading. And my steak arrived swimming in a pool of grease, giving a strong hint that the piece of meat wasn't top-notch. It proved to be quite fatty.

Then there was the issue of how it was cooked. I ordered the steak medium-to-medium rare, and on the edges, it was indeed cooked medium. Too bad it was downright raw near the bone. Therefore, I didn't eat a good portion of it. When I informed my server--who was competent but uninspired, as if she was just going through the motions--she told me she'd let the kitchen know about the undercooked steak, but made no offer of reparations.

Unfulfilled by my meal, I decided to get dessert, hoping the restaurant would redeem itself a bit. I ordered the "Big Ranch" chocolate cake ($4.95) over the flan and the cheesecake. Connie got the flan that came with the special; she pronounced it to be unspectacular.

I was encouraged when my server brought the cake. A large slice, drizzled in four sauces (strawberry, chocolate, caramel and vanilla), it was a wonder to look at. But it was a challenge to eat. The cake was chilled, and therefore, it had the consistency of a rock. The frosting was like glue, too. It was the final disappointment of what was a letdown of a meal.

Again, I want to point out that the ownership of Las Vigas should be commended for wanting feedback on how to make their restaurant better. Unfortunately, the list of needed improvements is too lengthy to justify a return visit anytime soon.

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