More Spice, Please

Except for a tasty dessert and some decent soup, Ventana Mexican Kitchen was a total disappointment

Although it's true that you can't judge a book by its cover, I've found that you can usually judge a Mexican restaurant by its margaritas.

And when the margarita tastes more like bottled sweet-and-sour mix than tequila and lime, that's not a good sign.

The décor at Ventana Mexican Kitchen is much improved over the old Casa Sanchez décor. However, on both of our visits, the service didn't reflect the warm, cozy décor. Despite the fact that we were pretty much the only patrons in the restaurant on both occasions, the service was slow, at best—and downright inattentive, at worst.

The restaurant immediately got off on the wrong foot when the $7 house margarita was served in a small white wine glass that was so warm that it must have just come out of the dishwasher. The ice was diminished to chips in less than five minutes, watering down the syrupy, too-sweet margarita mix. I asked for a mojito ($7.50) instead, but was told that they were out of the ingredients to make it. A replacement margarita was not offered.

After placing our order, we didn't see the server, or the food, or anyone for 20 minutes, until our appetizers came out. The guacamole ($6.95) was served as a tiny 3- to 4-ounce scoop, placed on a large pile of shredded iceberg lettuce, with eight or so chips. There was enough guacamole for maybe three chips, and it tasted more like creamed garlic powder than anything resembling guacamole. The limp shreds of lettuce kept sticking to the guacamole, adding another unpleasant element.

I had better hopes for the cocktele de camarones Mexicano ($9.95), because I love shrimp. It was served in a martini glass, and most of the space was taken up by (largely melted) ice and paper. The center of the paper was filled with tiny bay shrimp swimming in what tasted exactly like Bloody Mary mix, with a few cucumber chunks here and there.

At this point, I was concerned about what we'd find when the entrées arrived—and I was starving. Another 20 minutes passed before the chili con carne ($8.95) and the tortas de camarones ($9.95) finally came. The chili con carne looked innocent enough; a large pile of shredded beef, stewing in a red sauce, took up the majority of the plate, and a small side of beans and rice accompanied the beef. Sadly, it was bland at best.

The tortas de camarones offered a real shock. On the menu, they are described as "two shrimp patties covered in enchilada sauce, served with rice and beans." What arrived was a big mess of those tiny bay shrimp and scrambled eggs, covered in a sauce that was not enchilada sauce. There were not two; they were definitely not shrimp patties; the menu made no mention of an omelet. After two bites, I was done. The staff was apparently done as well, since they had swept, turned off most of the lights, put away all of the chairs and counted out the cash register before coming to collect our check—a good 15 minutes after we were done with entrées. It was only 7:45 on a Friday night, so I was a little surprised.

I sincerely hoped that the first night was just a fluke, and we tried to return for lunch on a nice Sunday afternoon—but much to my surprise, Ventana Mexican Kitchen was closed. The website says the restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily, and the hours are not posted anywhere that I could see in the restaurant.

We finally accomplished our second visit (after calling to make sure they were open) on a weeknight. Thankfully, the food and service were slightly improved—but still not great.

We ordered two Coronas, but were informed they only had Corona Light in a can, so we switched to Pacifico (all $3.95), which came out warm, with two warm glasses. The cheese crisp (la suprema style, $7.95) and the caldo de queso ($6.95) came out quickly this time, and the service was a bit more consistent. The cheese crisp—loaded with green chili, onions and ground beef—wasn't bad, but the texture and greasiness of the ground beef was a bit off-putting. Too many toppings overwhelmed the crispiness of the tortilla, making the center soggy and flimsy.

The caldo de queso was one of the few things that I would order again. Although the potatoes were small-fist-sized (making soup-eating quite challenging), and the chilies were cut into too-long strips that kept falling off the spoon, the flavors were nice, and the broth was rich and not too salty. However, it would have been better if the cheese had not been added hastily, because it melted into one giant clump at the bottom of the bowl. Caldo de queso is best with just a touch of cheese, slowly added in.

I was eager to try the chiles rellenos ($7.95), one of my all-time-favorite dishes—but these were the strangest chiles rellenos I've ever had. The chiles came out wrapped in an egg—not an egg batter, but a thin layer of scrambled egg, which didn't provide the necessary crunch to keep the dish from having the consistency of baby food. The seeds weren't removed from the chiles, either, which was quite a surprise.

The barbacoa chimichanga ($7.95), enchilada style (an extra $1.99), was boring and too moist. The wetness inside of the burrito had already seeped through the crispy fried outside by the time it got to the table; the enchilada sauce was watery and without flavor. Even the sour cream couldn't save it.

Dessert was the only thing I'd heartily recommend. The "flan" ($3.50, and not really flan, but a delicious custard drizzled in caramel, cherry or chocolate sauce) was excellent. If you're expecting true flan, don't get it, but if you just want something creamy, sweet and satisfying, it's quite nice. The caramel sauce was especially good.

The foothills could use another good Mexican restaurant, but with dumbed-down, spiceless food and inconsistent service, Ventana Mexican Kitchen isn't filling the niche.

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