Neighborhood Mexican

Although the crowds and margaritas are smaller, Club 21's food still shines at times

Ever since Club 21 opened its doors in 1946--right where Miracle Mile meets Oracle Road--the Jacob family has offered quality Mexican food at more-than-reasonable prices. Decades ago, most of the patrons were neighbors, happy to be able to find such good Mexican fare close to home. It was rare on a weekend night not to have to wait for a table on the cool patio or in the cozy bar.

But on the Saturday night we stopped by, that certainly wasn't the case. The parking lot was almost empty, and inside, we had our choice of tables. Several other parties were in each of the dining rooms, but the hustle and bustle of days gone by seemed only a memory. We wondered what was up.

Looking over the menu, it was obvious that it couldn't be the prices. The most expensive cheese crisp was $8.75, and the especiales de casa topped out at $15.95 for Steak a la Sonora, a sirloin steak topped with green chili, with beans and rice. If my memory serves me right, these prices haven't changed drastically in years, nor has the menu itself. Still, something besides the big crowds was missing.

The décor is typical of what you find at many Mexican joints around town: tiled walls, velvet paintings, Mexican curios here and there. There are several dining rooms, the best being the room just off the bar. The walls are adobe-like brick, the floors shined to the max, the booths cozy.

Service was still prompt and courteous, though perhaps a little too attentive. But you couldn't really fault the servers--after all, even on a slow night, one still has to keep busy.

Anyway, our server brought us the requisite bowl of warm tortilla chips. A nice touch is the choice of two salsas, one mild and one hot. Plus, the chips can be refilled at your request, which isn't always the case elsewhere.

Club 21's claim to fame has long been the El Gigante margarita, a whopping 46 ounces of margarita madness. All in the name of research, of course, we both ordered one, only to find out it was no longer being served, even though it's listed on the menu. We had to settle for the Margarita Grande, a mere 27 ounces ($6.50). I didn't ask why the drink had been taken off the menu, but it seemed an odd choice to kill off a signature drink.

Our first course was very good. The drinks complemented the large cheese crisp with green chiles ($7.50). The margarita was sweet and sour and nicely chilled. The cheese crisp was cooked perfectly: a crispy tortilla, just the right amount of cheese and healthy dose of green chile strips.

I wish I could say the same for our entrées. John ordered the No. 9 combo: carne seca, beans, a tortilla and a small salad ($11.25). I chose the No. 8: two chile rellenos, beans and rice ($10.75).

John's carne seca plate was a tad disappointing. First of all, the side salad was an odd addition. It was served prior to the rest of the meal: a tiny bowl of leafy lettuce with another tiny bowl of dressing. John didn't even bother with it. The greens would've made a nice presentation on the carne plate, and probably would've been eaten, too.

The carne seca, sadly, wasn't prepared by the traditional method of air-drying seasoned strips of flank steak. Instead, the meat was a beef roast cooked dry and then reconstituted with stock and salsa--bland in comparison to the real thing. I think the higher cost of steak may have had a part in the decision to use a cheaper cut of beef. That could also be the reason behind the loss of the El Gigante. Sometimes, cutting corners isn't the answer.

My chile rellenos were made with fresh chiles, as evidenced by stems that poked out of the nicely browned egg batter. Very attractive, but as I bit into the relleno, I immediately got a rush of hot chile. Too hot for this mild dish! Upon careful inspection, it was obvious that the seeds hadn't been removed, thus totally changing the tone. Lack of attention to detail?

I'm not really sure. My beans and rice were only OK, but I have to say I did manage to polish off most of my plate. And, admittedly, I didn't have room for dessert.

On a lunch visit, the food fared better, although the place was even emptier than it was on our dinner visit. We went light and a la carte. John had two ground beef tacos ($5); I ordered one cheese enchilada ($2.50) and, just to give it another chance, a carne seca taco ($3.25). We also decided to split an order of beans with cheese ($1.60).

John praised his tacos as tasty and fresh, and my enchilada was as good as any in town. My carne seca taco held up, too. It was still the same beef as the previous meal, but with all the taco trimmings, there was quite a bit more flavor. Even the beans were better, fresher-tasting and topped with cheese.

Then we ordered the chocolate enchilada ($3.95). Our server said it was the best dessert on the menu, but even though this unusually named treat looked tasty, I'd be hard pressed to say it lived up to the billing. What appeared to be a flour tortilla was filled with a vanilla pudding-like substance and then topped with barely warm hot fudge and whipped cream--a clever idea not very well executed. Perhaps a chocolate chimichanga might be an option. The dish would've done well with a little bit of crunch.

After all is said and done, I still can't figure out why Club 21 wasn't packed on either stop. Sure, there were a few minor flaws and inconsistencies, and there have obviously been some cost-cutting measures taken, but still, the food is good, and the place is comfortable and affordable. Maybe competition has tempted away some of the clientele, or maybe the neighbors have all moved elsewhere. Maybe Club 21 should toot its own horn and remind people that this long-time neighborhood joint is still hanging in there. Maybe they should bring back the El Gigante.