Among the hundreds of faded, indistinctive strip malls on the West Bank, Belle Terre Plaza is especially unwelcoming with its abandoned Werlein's Music store and its expansive, almost always empty parking lot. There are no second-hand boutiques at Belle Terre, no dollar stores, no karaoke bars, and none of the other low-rent, high-traffic requisites that breathe life into architecturally challenged commercial clusters. What's most disconcerting about Belle Terre, though, is Taqueria la Mexicana -- disconcerting because of how exceptional its Mexican cooking is, and how easy it would be to miss it.
Stepping into the one-room restaurant, you see a Christmas-red wall to the right, a green wall to the left and a white one dead ahead. Some of the tables are white with red sponge prints, others are white with green sponge prints and the long ones are half-and-half. If you can't guess Mexico's colors within your first 10 seconds here, you're either color blind or subliminally impenetrable. Taqueria la Mexicana's general mood is correspondingly patriotic. Kiddy sombreros, traditional Mexican dresses and soccer team uniforms adorn the walls; when a Mexican soccer game is on television, no one in the room speaks, except to order, and then it's a whisper.
If there's no soccer game, the feature presentation will be a Spanish-language version of People's Court or Sesame Street or Passions. Everybody watches intently, which is a real shame when you have quarters in your pocket and there's a jukebox in the corner offering Kool & the Gang, Ricky Martin and untold Latino pop bands.
It may be coincidence, but the first taste to hit your palate will likely also be colored red, green and white: a thin, bracing salsa made with tomato, cilantro and onion that deposits a pleasant and semi-permanent chile tingle on the tongue. While this first round is gratis, other variations on the chip-salsa theme fill out the appetizer selection, including a respectable mash of avocado and cilantro leaves. At three bites each, the double-ply, soft-shell tacos also make super lagniappes, particularly the tacos al pastor containing sweet, fried onions and matchsticks of chewy, spice-stained beef.
This would be the time to try a Michelada, a Bloody Mary-like drink made with beer, lime and tomato juice served in a glass rimmed with salty chile powder. Servers also dip long ladles into glass barrels of thin, cream-colored horchata, a sweetened rice milk drink, and fruity-tart flor de jamaica, a juice colored purplish from the calyx of hibiscus flowers. Tall bottles of Squirt come with nothing but a straw.
What you should order for a main course depends upon the day. On weekends there's an excellent, fresh shrimp cocktail, parfait glasses and glass schooners layered with endless crunchy shrimp, ripe avocado, onion and cilantro -- all bathed in a cool wash of tomato. Also on weekends, plunge into the deep bowls of pork posole whose oily, psychedelic chile-red surface gives way to a deep, brown pork broth dense with tender pork and blossomed hominy kernels. Stirring in posole's customary condiments -- raw onions, cabbage, a squirt of lime -- contributes a light, flowery dimension to the intense stew.
Several inviting tortilla and masa-based dishes are available every day. For chilaquiles, cooks traditionally make use of dried-out tortillas by cutting, pan-frying and cooking them down in a mild, chile-tomato sauce. The end result, a sort of a la minute casserole, is dreamy topped with two glistening fried eggs.
An order of sopes presents three small, round, toasted masa cakes, each turned up slightly around the rim to form a shallow bowl about as thick as four tortillas. The sopes come topped like little tostadas, with smooth, lard-rich refried beans, shredded lettuce and salty white cheese; you can fire these bland snacks up with a side of shocking chile de arbol sauce, seeds and all.
I didn't love the chicken mole poblano. The mole sauce exhibited an attractive chocolatey color and polished-wood luster, but a general lack of verve and some background bitterness spoiled the fun. Meat eaters should try the cactus steak instead, a solid, coarse-grained plane of beef smothered in a wonderful, green cactus sauce that's at once fruity and tart, with a surprise piquant edge. Like most entrees, the steak comes with fluffed orange rice and matte plum-colored refried beans that are neither thick nor soupy, ringed with a halo of oil.
A dry-erase specials board hanging near the television advertises barbacoa, Mexico's pit barbecue delicacy, made with mutton in some regions, goat or pork in others. The board is just a tease as far as I can tell. They never actually had barbacoa in house on my four visits there. The tease works, though: I keep asking.
There's a selection of Mexican candies and a freezer full of tropical icicles near the register, but a lack of housemade desserts during my visits seemed to indicate a seriousness of purpose I appreciate. This food may be nothing special in Oaxaca or the Yucatan. But here, where the cheesed-up combination plate too often passes for the best Mexican cooking in town, Taqueria la Mexicana is a singular thrill.
- Blanca Valdespino, Javier Valdespino and Elena Medina serve up some of the best south-of-the- border food on the West Bank at TAQUERIA LA MEXICANA.