Let's back up for a second and pretend that you run a Mexican restaurant in, say, Saskatchewan. Chances are, you run one of a mere handful of Mexican joints (not counting the Del Tacos and Taco Bells that have run amok, reproducing on this planet like a heinous, sour cream-laden pox on humanity). And that means that the bar is set a lot lower for you--in other words, as long as your food's decent, and your prices and service aren't out of whack, you'll be highly regarded.
But in Tucson ... sheesh. There are Mexican restaurants, really good ones, in abundance. And if that isn't good enough for you, you can drive 55 miles, where ALL of the restaurants--even ones that serve bratwurst or something--are technically Mexican restaurants, thanks to a little thing we call geography.
It's a shame that Lerua's isn't located in Saskatchewan. It would excel there. But being here in Tucson, as far as Mexican restaurants go, it's merely average.
I visited the Broadway Boulevard restaurant with Irene, The Weekly's fine editorial assistant, for a recent Friday lunch. Lerua's is a nice enough place--yellow brick and an orange ceiling give the restaurant an upbeat feel. It's small; I counted 14 tables, and two of those are stuck in the corners and apparently only used as a last resort. Lerua's also does a fair amount of takeout and catering, based on what we saw regarding the comings and goings that day.
After our pleasant server brought our drinks--horchata ($1.95 large or $1.40 for a medium) for me and a soda for Irene ($.75-$1.50)--we placed our orders. Irene, who's a vegetarian for those of you keeping score at home, decided to get the veggie burro with beans and rice ($5.25) with an order of guacamole ($2.75-$3.50). I went with a chicken chimichanga ($5) and a rolled chicken taco ($2.15 or two for $4.25). For appetizers, we agreed to split chips and salsa fresca ($1.50) and the quesadillas and salsa ($4.50).
Following a reasonable delay, we received our appetizers. The chips, homemade tortilla pieces, were perfectly cooked. The salsa fresca--it had a pico de gallo sort of consistency and taste--was fresh and delicious. Irene declared it "just right," although I thought it was a bit over-salted.
The quesadillas, however, were a disappointment. There was nothing wrong with the tortillas wrapped around Monterey jack cheese, but the problem was, that's all there was to them. No special spices or ingredients--nothing, just tortilla and cheese melded to look like for small, deflated burritos. And for $4.50, that was disappointing.
The main courses were delivered in an appropriate amount of time. Irene liked her good-sized burro, saying it was tasty. However, she also said its consistency wasn't what she would have preferred; it was too mushy and kept trying to fall apart.
My chimichanga was respectable, but not spectacular. I can vouch that it was well-cooked, as it was practically molten when I first bit into it (dumb move on my part to chow down without paying attention). The shredded chicken inside had obviously been marinated in some sort of citrus sauce. It reminded me of a chicken version of El Charro's carne seca. It was good, although the chimichanga could have benefited from some other ingredients, like sour cream and guacamole.
Sure, I could have gotten all this stuff, but it would have cost me. Add-ons of sour cream (75 cents to $1) and guacamole ($2.75-$3.50) would have cost me an extra $3.50, minimum, and I felt that was a ridiculous sum to pay.
My chicken taco was fine--a small taquito-looking thing with cheddar cheese, tomatoes and lettuce--but again, at $2.15, I wanted more.
Irene and I left Lerua's that afternoon reasonably satisfied. The food was decent, although we felt somewhat gouged comparing some of the prices with what we actually got. But I doubt we'll be dining there again anytime soon. There are just too many fine Mexican restaurants in this Southwestern town to settle for only so-so.