By Allan Reid
Monday Magazine restaurant reviewer
I swear I’ve visited Restaurante la Tortilla Mexicana, or someplace much like it, in Puerto Vallarta’s Zona Romantica, particularly in those blocks on the East side of the highway, in the valley that backs up against the tunnels. If you know the area, then you know what I mean.
To be polite, I’ll call the place quaint, with rough surface textures of wood and plaster, old tables and chairs and crudely built booths. And still, pride-of-ownership shines vibrant and alive in the bright colours, strings of plastic festival flags, collections of glamorous sombreros, handwoven blankets and other random Mexican trinkets, and, of course, in the friendly smiling service provided by Ricardo and his family.
|Allan Reid, Monday Magazine restaurant reviewer/File photo|
Mama runs the kitchen while Papa runs the front-of-house, and the whole family is present, some working, younger ones playing. Plenty of Spanish fills the air, spoken by staff and customers. Food is simple – tacos, tortillas, empanadas, enchiladas – served mild, but with bottled hot sauces, fresh Pico de Gallo and chili sauces on the side.
Fresh vegetables, tortillas still hot off the press, and refried beans not pureed into a bland, homogenous sludge are de rigor. In Mexico, such meals are not the sumptuous fare of trained chefs, but rather Mama’s authentic home-cooking made to order and offered humbly and without apology to anyone willing to pay the modest price asked. And if you, as I, prefer Mama’s simple cooking to the overwrought creations of Malecon fish and steakhouse chefs, then Victoria’s Restaurante la Tortilla Mexicana is your Mexican place in Victoria.
My all-time favourite Mexican dish is molé: a hearty and spicy chocolate sauce served over just about any meat. Good molé should not be sweet, nor should it be bitter as unsweetened chocolate is. It should have a robust body like molten dark chocolate and a pleasant chili burn. La Tortilla Mexicana’s molé nails it for me. Served over Three Enchiladas ($19.99) stuffed with white-meat chicken, the molé is drizzled with sour cream and sprinkled with grated cotija cheese (a mild, soft cheese that grates into delicate curds). It is accompanied by saffron rice dotted with carrots, a simple slaw and Mama’s refried beans, which retain their nutty-earthy flavour.
The same sides also accompany the Carne Asada ($24.95). Thin-sliced marinated steak is sautéed with caramelized onions and served with two freshly made tortillas. One fills and rolls to taste. A good portion of steak and onions, a tablespoon’s worth of refried beans, two fork-fulls of saffron rice and a big pinch of slaw works for me. But two tortillas is at least two too few, and I found the steak overcooked – dry and a tad leathery – though the flavours were terrific.
I felt like a house-guest at La Tortilla, enjoying my host’s warm hospitality. Food was served quickly, water glasses were kept full, and Ricardo was genuinely interested in our enjoyment of the meals. But if you’ve dined in a Mexican family restaurante before, then you have probably already noted the Malecon pricing mentioned above.
At a tiny family-run diner in the Eastern part of the Zona Romantica, three fresh and delicious fish tacos served with tortilla chips and fresh-made Pico de Gallo might cost about $8CDN. But Victoria is not Mexico: nothing is cheap here. That said, the Carne Asada did not offer the value I expect for a $25 meal, but I’ll happily return for that Molé.
Restaurante la Tortilla Mexicana
1205 Quadra St. 250- 590-1422
Read previous columns by Allan Reid:
ALLAN REID: Paul’s undergoes a culinary face lift
RESTAURANT REVIEW: Bracing for changes to Pluto’s experience
REVIEW – Boom + Batten: Taste and style with a view to die for, sometimes
RESTAURANT REVIEW: Taking you back to Trinidad