Viva Variety!

La Fresita provides further evidence that good things indeed come in small packages

Tucson is fortunate to have a plethora of Mexican restaurants, from high-end joints to tiny taquerias. La Fresita falls in the latter category, but "the little strawberry" is much, much more than a typical tiny taqueria.

Above and beyond the usual menu offerings (tacos, burros and tostadas) found at many taquerias, La Fresita has full-plate dinners with homemade red and green chiles, steak ranchero, posole, chile rellenos and more. Daily specials run the gambit from albondigas to postres (desserts). Hamburgers are also on the menu. There's a full array of fruit shakes (licuados) and fruit salads, including a delicious pico de gallo that will more than tingle the old taste buds.

There are two La Fresitas (with another to open on South Alvernon Way within a few months), but we visited the St. Mary's Road site, which is conveniently close to my new workplace. All our visits were at lunchtime, but the menu and atmosphere doesn't change at dinner.

The place is teeny, with only three tables and a small counter inside, and three tables on the patio outside. There's not much in the way of atmosphere, but the food more than makes up for it.

I popped in for a midweek lunch and was amazed at the variety of offerings. I ended up ordering a chili relleno ($4.99) from the steam table, which came with rice, beans and four house-made corn tortillas.

Service was quick and friendly. My table was washed off immediately after I sat down, and two bottles of homemade salsa were set in front of me. Shortly thereafter, so was my lunch. The relleno was a good-sized chile stuffed with cheeses in a puffy batter. In spite of the fact that it was a little watery, the full-flavored chile had a mild heat, and the batter was perfectly light. The beans had a wonderful flavor, enhanced by some more of that melting cheese. The handmade tortillas were hot and fresh, and rich with the aroma of masa. But it was the rice that was the standout. Complemented with bits of carrots, tomatoes and onion, this rice was moist and fluffy with just a hint of heat; certainly, it was some of the best I've had in Tucson.

I also went solo for my next visit. I ordered the carne asada tacos ($2) and a strawberry fruit shake ($2.50). Again, service was swift and friendly. My two tacos were served open-faced on those wonderful corn tortillas, with two wedges of lime. Well-marinated and charred, the meat was topped with chopped onions and cilantro. All that was needed was some of the delicious salsa and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.

My fruit shake was also quite good. While American-style shakes feature ice cream, the shakes at La Fresita are prepared in the traditional Mexican style, with milk, ice and lots of fresh fruit. It was very refreshing and actually quite pretty, with swirls of fresh strawberries throughout.

The next week, I met co-worker Maria Ochoa for a late lunch. This time, I went with the daily special, two crispy beef tacos with rice, beans and a 20-ounce soda ($3.99).

Maria ordered the steak ranchero plate ($4.99) and a horchata drink ($2). Steak ranchero is one of her favorites. Plus, there were potatoes in this version, something, she says, you don't see at many restaurants.

We also split a pico de gallo ($3.50). Maria turned me on to pico de gallo a while back. Pico de gallo is a fresh-fruit salad--in this case, watermelon, jicama, cucumber, mango, melon, bananas, pineapple and oranges, layered and then sprinkled with a fiery powder. The combination of the juicy, sweet fruit and lingering heat of the seasoning is exhilarating! If you're feeling blue, a taste of pico de gallo will certainly change your mood.

We sat on the patio, which was quite noisy due to all the traffic on St. Mary's Road. It didn't matter; we had a lot of gossip to catch up on.

The wait for our food wasn't long. Maria's ranchero plate held a large portion of the stew-like concoction that had a healthy dose of chiles just for good measure. There was a large flour tortilla on the side.

Maria proclaimed the ranchero to be almost as good as her personal version--no slight remark, since Maria is one of the best cooks I know. The meat was tender (not always the case with steak ranchero), and the ranchero sauce was full of meaty flavor and more than a hint of chile and other spices. The potatoes added extra texture and substance.

My tacos were also good. The crisp shells were jam-packed with shredded beef and cheese. Again, there were more of the creamy beans and savory rice. They were quite good, although of the three meals I had at La Fresita, this one was the least impressive.

Breakfast is also served at La Fresita. Breakfast burros, machaca and eggs are just a few of the items available for early-morning eats. La Fresita also offers late-night hours. The St. Mary's site is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. The Valencia site has the same hours during the week, but on Fridays and Saturdays stays open until 3 a.m.--the perfect time for anyone returning from the casinos.

La Fresita will certainly become a regular lunch spot for me, not just because it's close to work; the prices are right, and the service is quick. Plus, with the variety of choices, I could eat at La Fresita for weeks and never duplicate my meals.

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