Restaurant Review - Sangria's Mexican Cafe

Si, Sangria's: Specials make this Mexican cafe worth the trip

Out of the kitchen they come, plates piled with fajitas, burritos, tacos, chalupas, quesadillas, enchiladas, chimichangas. Contented patrons munch their chips and salsa. The waiting crowd in the vestibule, impatient for their chance to order the same, begins to spill into the front dining room. They don't appear to know what they are missing.

Don't they know they can get those fast-food darlings at any Mexican restaurant? Don't they understand what gives Sangria's Mexican Cafe its underlying character? It isn't the dreary staples of corporate America's idea of Mexican food, however much Sangria's might improve on them. It's the family specialties: the carnitas Michoacan style, the Thursdays-only shrimp paella, the camarones a la Mexicana, the cheesecake flan. Above all, it is the arroz con pollo and the chicken and rice soup, its rich broth filled with chunks of chicken, plenty of rice, chopped cilantro and slices of lime.

When Sangria's opened five years ago, a few doors down from its present location, these specials were the stars of the kitchen, some prepared by a little old lady, a family friend, who brought the dishes out of the kitchen herself, still wearing her oven mitts. These were simple things, but carefully prepared. The rice, for example, was perfect, and perfectly delicious, tender and full of flavor. Likewise the refried black beans. Add to all of this the beverage for which the cafe is named — less sweet and slightly more citrus-tinged than the usual — and the little restaurant was an instant success. So much so that the present larger quarters — about four times larger — became necessary. That explains the chalupas. Hey, somebody has to pay for the expansion.

That somebody, however, does not have to be you. Ignore the crowd-pleaser part of the menu and stick to the specials if you want to experience the best of Sangria's.

The carnitas Michuacan style ($8.75), for example, are the pride of the chef's hometown. Pork, grilled dry, is both moistened and spiced up with tomatillo sauce. Or the spicy Camarones a la Mexicana ($9.95), shrimp in a sauce of tomatoes, onions and enough jalapenas to force one to immediately swallow a forkful of rice in an effort to tone down the heat. Or the shrimp paella ($9.95), which isn't paella at all, lacking the saffron, clams, chicken, sausage and anything besides shrimp, rice and diced red and green peppers. But the dozen shrimp nestled beneath the rice taste fresh and tender.

Arroz con pollo ($6.25) remains, after all these years, Sangria's most thoroughly gratifying dish. It's nothing to look at, just a big plate of rice. Only when one starts poking around with a fork do the shreds and chunks of chicken appear. But something wonderful happens once they're in the mouth. Despite the fact that the chicken is dry, in combination with the fluffy, earthy rice it is transformed into a soul- and stomach-satisfying creation.

The secret to this (and to all of the entrees involving meat of any kind) is in the accomplished grilling. Sangria's kitchen employs the grill to do precisely what grilling is supposed to do: sear the meats' flavor in. That's what makes the fajitas so popular here, too. From the Friday-night special beef filet fajitas ($12.95) to the everyday Texas fajitas ($10.95), a conglomeration of steak, chicken and shrimp, the meat keeps its integrity. Nothing swims in grease. Nothing is stringy.

Sangria's expert touch with basic cooking techniques makes it all the more puzzling that the quality of its tortilla chips has declined. The spicy salsa with its fresh, thick, even texture deserves better than the uninspiring chips served with it. Gone are the thick, salty chips made from white rather than yellow corn that Sangria's proudly produced when it first opened. Sigh.

But it isn't as though nothing good has come from the cafe's expansion. The broader storefront allows for a large patio at the entrance, which can be quite festive when the weather is warm. And the front room, which used to be merely the reception and take-out desk, is now filled with tables and, on weekends, live guitar music. Beyond this, the main dining room welcomes with its low lights and cozy high-backed booths.

It's comforting, then, to follow one of Sangria's dinners — oh, all right, even the quesadillas and such — with the cafe's signature cheesecake flan, an interesting flavor variation on the traditional. The blackboard at the entrance will let you know which other special flavors — amaretto and chocolate chip, to name two — are available in addition to that ($3.25 for the original flavor, $3.50 for the others).