Mixed Mexican

The menu and entrées at Parilla del Ray are great--but the service leaves a lot to be desired

Just when you think that Tucson couldn't possibly support one more Mexican restaurant, along comes Parilla del Rey.

Billing itself an American and Mexican grill, this relatively new southside spot is making its mark among the myriad neighboring joints. With a menu that ranges from prime rib to burritos and back again, Parilla del Rey does offer several more--and different--items than most places. On a couple of lunchtime visits (the restaurant is just blocks from my "day job"), I found the place to be a nice change from my usual haunts.

On the first visit, co-workers Haydee Armenta and Patricia Gastelum joined me for a late lunch. Even at that later time (around 1 p.m.), there was a nice crowd. We were seated immediately and took a look around.

The main dining area is a large, high-ceilinged room in earthy colors with Mexican curios all around. A small bar is separated from the main dining room by a unique metal sculpture that depicts an under-the-deep-blue-sea motif. A second dining room, much like an enclosed porch, is bright and cheerful, thanks to all the natural light. This is where we were seated.

The menu is definitely a good mix of Mexican and American foods, sort of something for everyone: a half-dozen steaks, ribs, shrimp, scallops, snapper and more. Mexican fare is plentiful, of course, with just about anything one might want.

We ordered two appetizers--coctel de camaron ($9) and fried calamari ($7). For entrées, Haydee asked for the tacos de camaron ($6.95), Patricia went with tacos de pollo ($6.50), and I decided on the tres enchiladas--one cheese, one chicken and one shrimp ($8.75). Haydee got a glass of ice tea ($1.50), the only beverage we ordered. We were on our lunch hour, after all.

We talked while we waited--enjoying some time away from the busy office--which is why we probably didn't really notice the time. All of a sudden, we realized we'd been waiting close to 25 minutes and subsisting only on chips and salsa.

A side about Parilla del Rey's three salsas: The pico de gallo is chunkier than most and was quite good, although after Haydee added a little salt, it was better. There was also a mildly hot green tomatillo sauce. But my favorite was the smoky red salsa. The chiles were roasted, which added a much deeper tone. We also had a bowl of the guacamole dip, the kind you'll find at taqueria bars. The girls decided it needed a bit of a kick and mixed a dash of tomatillo sauce with it. Again, I'd have to say it was an improvement.

We inquired about our food, and the server hustled off to the kitchen. Minutes later, our entrées arrived, but no appetizers. She seemed a bit harried, although the crowd had thinned a bit. Our appetizers did show a few minutes later--bad timing. A most sincere apology accompanied them.

The shrimp cocktail was a pint beer glass crammed with plump, tender, medium-sized shrimp. I might've liked a little more kick to the citrus/tomato sauce, but the serving itself was one of the largest I've seen in town.

The calamari was crispy, as advertised, but for my taste, there was a tad too much batter; the calamari got lost. There were supposed to be two dipping sauces--a garlic lime and a roasted tomato sauce. We only got the latter, but weren't disappointed. The tomatoes and chiles were both roasted a deep red color and clung nicely on the calamari.

When we inquired what was in the sauce, our server's reaction was a bit unusual. "Why? Don't you like it?" she asked. We said we did, but were just curious. She wasn't really able to tell us what the ingredients were.

Fortunately, there were no complaints about any of the entrées. The presentation was gorgeous, and Patricia's three chicken tacos were perfectly seasoned, lightly grilled cubes of tender chicken topped with cabbage, pico de gallo and queso fresco. Haydee's shrimp tacos (three of them) were tossed in a creamy, lime Baja sauce. They, too, had the cabbage and salsa, but cheddar was the topper on these. Both were very tasty!

My enchiladas were quite delicious (good, dark enchilada sauce is the secret). The cheese enchilada was gooey, as it should be. The shrimp stuffed into the other one were tender and plentiful. The chicken enchilada was very nice, as well. There was also a side of arroz del rey--fluffy, yellow rice laced with veggies.

All three plates came with frijoles de la olla. The tender beans were cooked in a thick, natural juice with just a trace of seasoning. Topped with cheese, these pot beans were a wonderful change from good old reliable refries.

On my second visit, I dined alone and was under an even tighter time constraint. To avoid returning late from lunch, I ordered a Del Rey steerburger with cheddar cheese ($6.95 plus 35 cents extra for the cheese) ahead of time. When I walked in, no one seemed to know anything about my order, but to the staff's credit, my lunch was ready in only a few minutes, exactly how I ordered it.

The burger was good-sized and grilled to perfection: crispy, grilled on the outside, juicy on the inside, seasoned so as not to overpower the quality beef. A nice slathering of the house chipotle mayonnaise enhanced the overall taste. My fries were plentiful, hot from the fryer and delicious.

I ordered flan ($4.95) for dessert. Drizzled with vanilla and caramel sauces and topped with a dollop of whipped cream, the flan was eggy and rich--another nice change from many other flans around town. I did ask the server what the toppings were, and again, I received a harried answer, as though she really didn't know what they were.

A bit of advice to the management: Take some time to teach the staff the inner workings of the menu. Diners like to know and you won't be giving away any secrets, believe me. Besides, the staff will profit as well. Better service equals better tips equals happy staff equals happy management.

My next visit will most certainly be for dinner. Parilla Del Rey looks like the kind of place where a couple of margaritas, a good steak and a side of those delicious frijoles de la olla might be a more than pleasant way to spend an evening.

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