Our Gourmet: A fine new cantina we could get used to

January 24. 2017 10:23PM

La Fiesta Mexico
300 S. Willow St., Manchester; 518-5830; www.lafiestamexico.com

Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thursday until 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11:30; Sunday noon-10 p.m.

Cuisine: Mexican.

Pricing: Apps $2.75-$11.25; soups/salads/sides $1.99-$13.25; lunch specials all under $10; Dinner $10.25-$25.99

Handicapped access: Easy inside maneuverability; entrance is a bit narrow, with two doors.

The scores for La Fiesta
Atmosphere: 16/20
Menu: 17/20
Food: 17/20
Service: 18/20
Value: 18/20
TOTAL: 86/100

A dandy little Mexican restaurant has emerged at the former site of PJ O’Sullivan’s on South Willow Street.

La Fiesta Mexico is serving up full plates of standard and not-so-standard south-of-the-border fare at good prices in a comfortably renovated interior. La Fiesta’s been open just over a year, and despite the tight street corner upon which it sits, there is ample parking directly across the side street to the south.

Inside, parts of the old cocktail lounge area remain intact, and the adjoining dining room has been rehabbed into a smart bistro setting with tables and booths. La Fiesta has smoothly carried off the transition from Irish pub to Mexican cantina, and the food we enjoyed was part traditional, part inventive, and all parts very good.

Service was terrific, too. Paola, our server, patiently answered all of our questions, and quickly adjusted our bill when a charged amount differed from what was on the menu.

We started with an appetizer and a shared bowl of soup, and quickly discovered it was our second Mexican restaurant in a row with an extraordinarily good bowl of soup on the menu. Last time, Tortilla soup at La Cabana in New Boston, with its heaping bowl of vegetables, chicken, tortillas and avocado, won our informal soup of the year prize.

Last week, Sopa de Marisco ($11) at La Fiesta immediately established itself as this year’s front-runner. It is a seafood soup of grand proportions, virtually overflowing with so many types of seafood it’s hard to count them. Shrimp, squid, clams, oysters, crabmeat and a large slice of haddock were combined with onions, potatoes, carrots, cilantro and tomatoes to create what is truly a meal in itself. The hot, steamy soup and our other appetizer, a single Spinach Quesadilla ($4.50) made for a great beginning to our meal.

The quesadilla, brimming with sautéed spinach, was lightly grilled inside a large flour tortilla. Alternating between bites of warm, cheesy quesadilla with spinach and hot spoonsful of seafood soup is a fine routine we could get used to.

Our dinner proved as good as the appetizers.

Camarones Yucatecos ($16.50) is an established Mexican favorite and this plate of grilled and marinated seafood and vegetables carried a spicy flavor throughout. Served over Mexican white rice with a good portion of guacamole salad topped by sour cream, the Yucatecos featured a hearty serving of large, marinated shrimp, grilled with red, yellow and green bell peppers, along with zucchini, squash and onions.

To keep our palates cool, we shared a Sour Cream Salad ($1.99 on the menu, but $4 on our bill), and what was expected to be a very small side salad turned out to be a good-sized plate of lettuce, tomatoes and sour cream — a perfect counter to our moderately spicy entrees.

Also on the side we ordered a staple that is a good judge of kitchen character at any Mexican restaurant: To us, an ala carte Chile Rellenos ($3.60) is a good indicator of the care a Mexican chef gives to the humble Poblano chile, and La Fiesta passed with flying colors. Certainly one of the better chile rellenos we’ve had, this large pepper was properly filled with cheese, properly breaded before deep-frying and nicely sauced when it arrived at the table — not buried in green chile sauce or overcooked to be crispy. It was cooked just right, held its heat nicely, and offered its full flavor to the end of our meal.

A bowl of seafood soup and a chile rellenos would be a fine and full meal that on their own would warrant a return trip to La Fiesta.

For the meat-lovers’ entrée, we shared (and intended for our leftovers) the Colombia Bandeja meal ($16.50), from the “traditional” menu listings. It may be traditional, but it was anything but common.

A nice serving of the Mexican white rice was topped by a fried egg, and accompanying that was a variety of meats. A nicely grilled rib-eye steak was central to the arrangement, and around the edges were other tastes that made a great combination. There was a fried pork rind, with individual half-sliced bites of meat attached; three fried sweet plantains as a fruit-vegetable (delicious); a large chorizo sausage; and a generous serving of pinto beans with a special sauce.

The steak, about eight ounces, was tender and juicy; the somewhat fatty pork rind was a first-time treat for us; the egg and rice was flavorful and different; and the plantains (bananas’ starchy cousins) were sweet and refreshing. The beans were also especially good, going far beyond anything that carries the name “refried.”

Later, when Paola discovered the price discrepancy for the Sour Cream Salad on the bill, she immediately re-calculated the total and apologized. She was smilingly accommodating about the small error, and had no need to be sorry, but her professional courtesy and gracious manner was a pleasure for these patrons. (We think there must be a typographical error on the menu, because the salad was well worth $4, or more.)

La Fiesta’s menu is extensive, with all the Mexican standards and more and listing more than 30 lunch specials — all under $10 and most under $8. There is a full bar with a dozen or more types of margaritas and a long list of wines and beers.

La Fiesta drew a crowd for the dinner hour the night we were there, and we’ve no doubt it has become a favorite along the restaurant-heavy South Willow Street — with good reason.

Our GourmetManchester

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