A couple sitting next to me at the crowded bar at La Sandia take turns reading the long laminated menu in their hands and watching the food being deposited on the counter for a friend and me.
Read, stare. Read, stare.
They look disappointed to see a bartender dump margarita mix from an industrial-size carton into a big bucket, but their eyes light up when my carne asada arrives. It's a juicy herbed skirt steak flanked with appealing distractions, including a soothing potato gratin with a Mexican accent (the cheese is Oaxacan). My buddy's entree, on the other hand, resembles an order of fruit salad that crashed into an order of seviche. "Chile-crusted tuna," the menu calls the colorful, clumsy-looking plate of seared tuna, mashed sweet potatoes and watermelon-orange salsa.
"Is the food any good?" the female half of the observation team finally pipes up.
"It can be," I tell her, nodding to the meat in front of me. I've eaten here once before, on a quiet midweek night, and I've been impressed with the fresh and creamy guacamole, the spicy beef flautas and a mole that managed the neat trick of keeping things a little nutty, a little sweet and a little hot in each bite of sauce. (A good thing; the chicken that comes with the mole is dull.)
La Sandia is another in a collection of eclectic dining rooms from chef Richard Sandoval, whose 12 restaurants can be found in New York (Pampano), Denver (Tamayo), Las Vegas (Isla), Dubai (Maya) and the District (Zengo), among other cities. La Sandia, which translates as "the watermelon" in Spanish and has a twin in Denver, is the baby of the bunch and a real looker. Clever glass and curtain dividers make the 243-seater more intimate; walls in gold, purple, blue and silver lend a luxe touch. The chunky chairs and dark tables would look at home in Mexico City, and so would the handsome stamped silverware and ceramic plates.
Much of the design helps you forget you're in the middle of a big shopping mall. But the noise doesn't, especially on a weekend night, when the place is mobbed, waits for a table can stretch to 45 minutes ("Here's your pager") and the sound level requires you and your friends to read lips.
More news you can use: The food comes out way too fast, so let your server know you're not in a rush, if that's the case; the salsa with the chips is invariably refrigerator-cold; there's a nice party room that seats 16; and the winy sangria, minty mojitos and potent caipirinhas all make better cases for another round than those bulk margaritas do.
--Tom Sietsema (First Bite, July 2, 2008)