If it weren't for our auto mechanic being located in La Mesa, I'd likely never have ventured there. No particular reason why-there just wasn't a draw. In the town's defense, though, it's got a quaint downtown area with lots of antique shops and some interesting restaurants. And, if you're looking for examples of the clean-and-simple architectural style that sprung up in SoCal in the 1950s, La Mesa has lots to offer.
At the east entrance to downtown La Mesa is a restaurant called Mario's de la Mesa. It's in a building that used to be a teahouse-and still kind of looks like a teahouse; it's easy to miss if you don't keep an eye out for the sign depicting a cartoonish little guy on a burro waving an American flag in one hand and a Mexican flag in the other.
The Thursday we were there, Mario's was packed. We waited only a couple minutes for seating at around 6:30 p.m. (our first choice, the outdoor patio, was filled), but by the time we left, there was definitely a wait. That's because Thursdays through the month of August is La Mesa's "Back to the '50s" car show. If you've not been, I highly recommend it. In fact, make an evening of it. You don't have to be a gearhead to appreciate vintage automobiles and rarely will you find a better bunch than the dozens that line La Mesa Boulevard.
Mario's is a family-style, family-owned restaurant where dishes are prepared using traditional recipes brought to America from the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Sonora. Before going to Mario's, I did a little research and found that their pork tamale has gotten high marks from other reviewers. I'm a sucker for a good tamale, so I ordered the tamale combo plate that came with rice, beans and two big slices of spicy carrots. My significant other got the carne asada. I also ordered a cup of albondigas soup, the Mexican version of vegetable soup, but with meatballs.
The carne asada plate alone would have been enough for the two of us-the S.O. could finish only one of the tortillas generously filled with meat, shredded lettuce and topped with excellent guacamole (yeah, we ate too many chips with salsa). The S.O. is a carne asada connoisseur and likes the meat to be well-done to the point of being slightly crispy around the edges, and that's how Mario's does it.
Everything about the tamale was great except that it was topped with a ranchera sauce and a little bit of shredded cheese, making the whole thing too salty for my taste. A good tamale doesn't need sauce-maybe a side of salsa, guacamole or sour cream, if you want options. This tamale wasn't the least bit dry, making the addition of sauce a little confusing. And the shredded pork filling was tender and lightly seasoned; my gringo tongue tasted just enough spice. Next time I'll ask them to hold the sauce.
For anyone who grew up eating good Mexican cuisine, rice and beans are comfort food. But in too many Mexican restaurants, the rice is either too greasy or resembles a pilaf. Mario's rice was right on-fluffy with carrots and peas mixed in and topped with shredded radish. It's hard to mess up refried beans (though not impossible); I have no complaints about Mario's.
The ablondigas soup was a treat-the meatballs were especially good-and would have been even better if it had been at least 10 degrees cooler outside. Soup and summer don't mix well. I'll go back for more in the fall.
Drink-wise, Mario's serves the standard Mexican-restaurant beers (Negra Modelo, Dos Equis, Pacifico) as well as sangria and wine margaritas. To the latter, my reaction was an immediate "Ugh," but I ordered one anyhow, out of curiosity. What I got was like a 7-Eleven strawberry Slurpee mixed with wine. It was too sweet, thought not undrinkable. Maybe the plain version would have been a better choice-but, hey, at least they tried.
More than the food, the service was outstanding-prompt and friendly. The restaurant's owners were both on hand, filling up glasses of water and chatting with guests. I can think of at least a couple of San Diego joints that could take a page from Mario's customer-service manual.
Open Monday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Entrées range from $7 to $13.
Wine, wine everywhere
Drink up for a good cause. On Thursday, Aug. 17, Mama's Kitchen, the nonprofit that delivers meals to people living with HIV and AIDS, holds its 11th annual wine-tasting fundraiser at Bourbon Street (4612 Park Blvd. in University Heights). For $50 ($45 advance purchase), you can sample five wines paired with hors d'oeuvres from local restaurants. Call 619-233-6262 or check out www.mamaskitchen.org for ticket info.
Also on Thursday, The Wine Encounter in Hillcrest (690 University Ave.) offers tastings of six "manager's picks" for $10 at "Thirsty Thursdays," held each week from 5 p.m. 'til midnight.
Get off work early on Friday and head to Bacchus Wine Market (647 G St., Downtown) for the popular "Drink Yourself Blind" tasting. They'll brown bag 10 wines; if you can correctly guess five of them, you wine a prize. Fifteen bucks gets you a nice buzz and a little lesson on varieties of wine. 619-236-0005.
If wine's a little too too-much for ya, on Sunday, Aug. 20, from 1 to 5 p.m., Whole Foods Market in La Jolla, 8825 Villa La Jolla Drive, holds an ice cream and dessert tasting. Kids are welcome. 858-642-6700.