Perfectly Pleasant

La Placita Café and its balanced Mexican fare deserve more attention

La Placita Café, the reliable, upscale Mexican restaurant in Plaza Palomino (at Fort Lowell and Swan roads), has several things going against it.

First is its name, which leads people to assume it must be downtown, within the mistake that is La Placita Village. Second, unless you know it's there, you'd never, well, know it's there--the restaurant is around the back of this most inward-looking of shopping centers. Third, it's not in our Chow Scan listings, because it got a devastatingly negative Weekly review in 2001.

The result? The place is never dead, in my experience, but never really busy, either. Here's how obscure it is: You can get seated there during the Gem Show--I know, because we ate there one night when the wait at NoRTH was 90 minutes. Its regular clientele--mostly older, well-heeled folks from, I would guess, the quiet surrounding neighborhoods--will probably not be happy about this review, because as it is, they've got the place to themselves. (I learned about it only by chance. I was eavesdropping a couple of years ago on two ladies in the locker room at the Tucson Racquet and Fitness Club, as one told the other she'd been there again, and it was so good, and just like sitting in somebody's kitchen. She was right.)

Well, too bad for the regulars. La Placita Café is one of the most pleasant places to eat Mexican food in Tucson. It's got a big, pretty, quiet room (carpet, a high, acoustic-tiled ceiling and a blessed absence of mariachis), a fine kitchen and a warm, relaxed staff. Either there's been radical improvement in the last seven years, or the reviewer was in a vile mood. I mean, she loathed the place.

When I invited my friends Patte and Dave to join me for dinner at La Placita, they did what any savvy Tucsonan would do and looked it up online; when I met them at the restaurant, they were quite reasonably wondering whether I really liked them after all. By the end of the meal, they were speculating about what could have happened to the previous reviewer the week she ate there. Hadn't she slept? Had her dog died?

We started with queso fundido ($6.50), which Dave picked on the tightly reasoned basis that "fun" was right there in the name. It turned out to be a bowl of delicious, mild white melted cheese, topped with fresh roasted green chiles. It came with tortillas, but we scooped it with the excellent chips as well. It was fun, and it was good. (On the other hand, can melted cheese be bad?)

Patte went with the sopa de mariscos ($14) on my recommendation. She loved it, saying that it had just the right degree of heat and plenty of shrimp, mussels and chunks of fish and ripe avocado. Dave, who's an eat-to-live kind of guy, copped to being pleased with his carne de birria chimichanga, which he got enchilada style ($8), and I was happy with my topopo salad with guacamole ($8.50)--impeccable mesclun greens, olives (admittedly canned and sliced), beans and plenty of tasty guacamole in a fried tortilla bowl. The previous reviewer had found this last element intensely offensive. I searched my diner's soul on the fried flour tortilla bowl issue and decided that I didn't care. They're pretty and keep a messy dish organized; nobody says you have to eat them.

We all liked being able to talk without fighting ambient restaurant crash and clatter.

The following week, I ordered dinner to go and picked it up on my way home from work. Ed wanted his usual chile relleno plate ($11), while I got the enchiladas de mole estilo Oaxaca ($13), both specialties of the house, plus flan ($5). We ended up sharing with Ed's son, Nate, and we ate every delectable bit, scooping up the last globs of first-rate beans and smears of mole with the still-warm flour tortillas. We even polished off the sweet-corn-studded rice.

Nate, who is one picky individual, said that what he liked about La Placita's cooking is that it's flavorful but balanced--nothing is too much. The chocolate in the mole was subtle; the flan just sweet enough. The chile relleno--a marvelous dish that can go wrong in so very many ways--was light, perfectly sauced and, this is critical, you could taste the chile.

La Placita Café's style is more Oaxacan than Sonoran; it's not in-your-face taqueria cooking, and everything's a bit pricier than at lots of Mexican joints. But it's a nice, low-key place to have a good dinner, and that's good enough for me.