Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ixtapa Mexican Cantina: Happy Bellies and Wallets

This is no Taco Bell. This is the real thing. The restaurant owners are from Mexico -and so are "Chef Jorge" and most of the employees. Typical Ranchera and Tejana melodies softly fill the air. The walls are adorned with colorful paintings and other decor unique to Mexico. The menu includes popular Mexican dishes from various locations throughout Mexico, not only Ixtapa, a western sea-side resort town near Acapulco, for which the Lexington cantina is named.

A bright-eyed waitress who calls herself Rocio says the food at Ixtapa is about as "autentica" as it gets. She says the dishes are prepared with many native spices and home-style methods of cooking.

"Es mexicana," she says with a smile erupting on her face like the great Popocatepetl is about to blow.

But, she admits that some of the dishes, like the burritos have been a tad "Americanizado."

"The burritos are the most popular item on the menu; it's what they're (American customers) are used to," she says with a distinctly accented English. "They are not used to trying many new things."

Her personal house favorites are foods that remind her of home: enchiladas de mole (enchiladas in mole sauce), arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) and carne asada (grilled meat) -and the melon margarita.

I trusted her suggestion and sipped on a melon margarita while I munched on crispy chips and homemade salsa. I normally don't care for margaritas because they are either too sour, too sweet, or taste too tequila-y. This one, however, was just right. It was cool and refreshing on a scorcher of a summer day. The margarita was served with a slice of orange, cherry and bandera mexicana. The perfect garnish.

The chips and salsa, which had been promptly delivered to the table upon arrival, were very generous in portion. The chips were crisp and the house salsa was flavorful and thin in consistency. Not too spicy, not too mild. This is not the kind of salsa you find in the snack aisle at the supermarket.

I wasn't in the mood for mole -a special sauce that is made in a variety of ways depending on the particular region within Mexico -so I decided on one enchilada with the green tomatillo-based sauce, and one with the red. The enchiladas were served with a heaping portion of rice, re-fried beans, a dollop of sour cream, shredded lettuce and a spoonful of diced tomatoes. I wasn't in a rush, so I slowly enjoyed the meal and practically cleared the plate -except for the re-fried beans because I'm not a fan of eating something that looks like what you could feed your dog.

Stuffed to the brim, dessert was completely out of the question. But, of course, I got it anyway. I'm a huge sucker for fried ice cream. The perfectly round ball of vanilla ice cream was hidden beneath a crispy coating, smothered in chocolate sauce and sprinkled with cinnamon. The serving was so generous I could have shared it with three other people. I'm glad I was dining alone.

As I savored my meal, Rocio came back to the table several times to check on how the meal was, and to chat in Spanish about different cities in Mexico she had visited, the food, and the typical misconceptions many people have about Mexican food.

"People usually think our food will be spicy, but Mexican food is not all spicy," she says. "And it's not what you get at Taco Bell."

With a bursting belly and a very happy heart, I asked for the bill. My margarita cost more than my lunch. I didn't realize that my wallet would be as happy as my belly.


Ixtapa, located at the border of Arlington and Lexington, is open daily from 11 a.m. Daily lunch specials $6.50.

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