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Fine Dining: La Olla Mexican Cafe

Eatery’s imaginative chances with fare mostly pay off

Co-workers (from left) Jake Thompson, Alex Barrera and Daniel Soria have lunch at La Olla Mexican Cafe, 8553 N. Silverbell Road.

Co-workers (from left) Jake Thompson, Alex Barrera and Daniel Soria have lunch at La Olla Mexican Cafe, 8553 N. Silverbell Road.

This stretch of creosote-laden country was stoically beautiful circa 1979, back when the Norman brothers were running their drug ring and stashing their bogus $100 bills under the wood pile outside Lil Abner’s.

Through the miracle of Instant Suburbia (“Just add water!”), North Silverbell Road seemingly sprang up overnight into a morass of stucco, cinder block and silhouettes of howling coyotes.

From what I’ve heard, within a year of so, the seating arrangements in the classrooms of the area’s first elementary school were reminiscent of those ’50s photos of frat-boy phone booth-stuffing stunts.

The sprawl has slowed since then, and surprisingly enough, a few locally owned restaurants have actually taken up residence among the otherwise chain-ganged retail centers.

La Olla may be the best of these.

Though the single dining space is somewhat dominated by the full bar, it’s nicely and comfortably appointed, though like most new places, gets a little noisy when the dinner rush gets going. I like the look of stained concrete as much as anybody, but when combined with lots of glass and 90-degree angles, it makes for loud dining.

Our server, who was faultlessly efficient and courteous throughout the meal, spoke highly of the Empanadas appetizer ($7.75 ), so we went with that and the Nachos de La Olla ($6.50) for starters. They were a study in contrast, though both were great.

The Empanadas featured a crust like that of the best homemade pies, one that concealed small shrimp, a cilantro pesto, green chile, manchego cheese and a chipotle cream sauce. Topped with sweet corn, the pair of empanadas had an impressive range of textures and flavors. The small, pungent shrimp were of good quality and were generously portioned in the turnovers.

I’m not usually a fan of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink nachos, but this particular version surprised me. Made with black beans, chili con queso, chorizo, cheddar cheese and smoked poblano crema, it had a distinct taste and an overall appeal that was worth the sum of the parts unlike so many versions that turn a bunch of different ingredients into a confusing not-much-of-anything. My companion and I particularly liked how the poblano crema played off the black beans and the chorizo.

They go out of their way to be a little different here, and it pays off for the most part. When it didn’t, we still appreciated the effort. So it was with my Combination No. 1 ($11.25), which combined carne seca, a cheese chile relleno and garlic shrimp taco. The taco was excellent, coming off as a taco scampi if you will, as the potent yet careful touch of garlic worked well with the plump shrimp. The carne seca was a little too moist and too inclusive of flavors from onions and peppers. I’m kind of a purist when it comes to carne seca, and though this version was nicely spiced, it was almost a stretch to call it carne seca. As for the relleno, it was painted with a pungent, white sauce of some kind that neither I nor my companion were too crazy about. The breading was a rather thick tempura-style that was a little on the stiff side, and the chile was disappointing bland. I would have much preferred a traditional relleno as part of the combo.

My companion’s Pork Carnitas ($11.25) brought us back to how we felt about the appetizers. The slow-roasted pork was tender, leaner than the usual carnitas, and well-outfitted with caramelized onions and chiles. The accompanying tamale pie was a refreshingly delicate take – a cross between polenta and green chile cornbread that we quickly devoured, and a serving of calabacitas was well-spiced and well-cooked.

The end of the meal was even better than the beginning. The Flan ($4.25) was traditionally prepared and flavored but nontraditionally served in a much more generous portion. The texture of the flan itself was expertly balanced between custard and cake, and the caramel sauce was burnt to deliver just the right pull at the sides of the mouth. The Xango ($5.25) was even better, an imaginative teaming of a custard-filled fried burro topped with chocolate. Forget about how it sounds; it just works.

If La Olla was a house up here instead of a restaurant, it would be in big trouble with the Homeowners Association. For a restaurant to take this many imaginative chances with its Mexican fare is surprising, particularly in this land of HOA-approved earth tones and front yards.

Though there were a couple of items that I would have preferred La Olla not get quite so racy with, it’s hard to find fault with people who are obviously dedicated to trying to distinguish themselves from the status quo.

La Olla's Combination No. 1 has <em>carne seca</em>, cheese chile <em>relleno</em> and a shrimp taco.” width=”320″ height=”204″ /><p class=La Olla's Combination No. 1 has carne seca, cheese chile relleno and a shrimp taco.



What: La Olla Mexican Cafe

Address and phone: 8553 N. Silverbell Road, 579-0950

Prices: Appetizers from $4.95 to $8.25; soups and salads $2.75-$8.25; entrees $9.95-$14.95; desserts $4.25-$5.95

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, noon-9 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

Bar: full

Vegetarian options: Quesadilla ($4.95), Harvest Salad ($5.95), Bean and Cheese Burros ($10.50)

Desserts: Several, including Pineapple Empanada ($5.25), Chocolate Jalapeño Gelato and Cheesecake (both $5.95)

Currency: cash and credit

Latest health inspection: Passed opening inspection Oct. 9, 2007. Has yet to undergo its first unannounced inspection.

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