Tia Queta: A Far Cry From Mexican at the Mall

By Moira E. McLaughlin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 2009

At a glance: Tia Queta is a little neighborhood hacienda in Bethesda with blue Christmas lights in the windows, a red roof overhang and a cozy feel.

It's a local joint with faded, signed headshots of D.C. celebs on the wall (George Will, Dan Quayle, Ronald Reagan) and the Georgetown game on in the back.

Roberto Montesinos, 60, opened Tia Queta 32 years ago after coming to the United States from Mexico and earning a degree in marketing from American University. He clearly took great care in designing the restaurant, paying attention to such details as pegs in the wooden floor, beams in the ceiling and big potted plants throughout. There are almost too many knickknacks for my taste: big wine bottles, porcelain plates, lassos, sombreros and a rooster overlooking the crowd. (Hey, there could be a game here! Find the rooster!)

But the mishmash of artifacts works, and it seems to go with Montesinos's friendly personality. The decor says, "Come and eat with your good friends here -- the ones most likely to make you laugh and kick back."

On the menu: The restaurant goes a step further than your average Mexican place. The nachos, for example, are not the standard mess of chips and cheese strewn on a plate. Rather, five traditional tortilla chips sit neatly separated, each one loaded with cheese, jalapeños, a choice of meat and a layer of refried beans, surrounding a generous helping of guacamole and sour cream. They are tasty and not too hot despite the jalapeños, and a little easier to eat than your average plate of nachos.

You may not even need to order nachos, however, if you partake of the free chips and salsa. The chips are unfortunately not the crispy, thin kind, but the salsa is delicious and fresh with small chunks of tomatoes and onions in their own juices. It's worth filling up on.

In the same way that the nachos are nice and neat, so are the enchiladas. They don't sit in a plate of beans and sour cream like enchiladas you may find at other Mexican restaurants. Tia Queta is confident in its ingredients, having no need to hide behind gobs of cheese and sour cream.

I enjoyed the enchiladas verdes, a solid dish full of fresh shredded chicken, a little cheese and a bit of green sauce.

If you like mole (the dark Mexican specialty sauce made with chocolate and spices), this is your place. Tia Queta offers three chicken mole dishes. The enchiladas de mole and the mole verde tasted similar, smothered with the rich, deep brown sauce. Both were extremely appetizing and delicious. If you have never had mole, this is the perfect place to try it.

For many restaurants, desserts seem like an afterthought. Not here. I loved all the desserts we tried. The buñuelos (a fried pastry) were delicious, light and just a little sweetened with sugar, cinnamon and honey. The crepas were also delightful, easy to share and stuffed with just the right amount of thick, gooey caramel: not too sweet, but not bland. And as for the plátano al horno: I don't normally like bananas masquerading as dessert, but the bananas, cut length-wise and broiled with brown sugar and honey, were delectable.

What to avoid: Aside from the nachos, I didn't love the appetizers. The Hongos Campesinos, big mushrooms in a tomato and onion stew, were a bit bland. The aguacate relleno, avocados stuffed with shrimp and served cold, sounded like a good idea but may be better suited for a light summertime appetizer.

Most disappointing was the tortilla soup, which just tasted like tomato soup, albeit for a few strips of tortillas at the bottom of the bowl. Luckily, between the chips and salsa and the entrees, you really don't need an appetizer.

At your service: Tia Queta aims to please. Want half-chicken, half-beef nachos? No problem. Want hot, soft tortillas with your entree? Coming right up. The server may casually refer to your table as "guys" and give you plenty of time to finish your meal and still linger over your water if you want. It's all very relaxed.

What's less relaxed is the metered parking outside. Bring your quarters. The meters run until 10 p.m. every day but Sunday, 20 minutes for a quarter.

Wet your whistle: An asterisk next to Tia Queta Special Margarita denotes, "the very best," and according to my dining companion, a margarita lover, it is the very best: not too sweet, with a generous amount of tequila.

The sangria is also delicious, not so loaded down with ice and fruit that you miss the tasty red wine. Added bonus: Tia Queta is generous with the half-pitcher. It is more than enough for a couple to share.

The bottom line: Tia Queta is a casual place perfect for a night out with friends. Introduce yourself to Montesinos, laugh, have a few drinks and (seriously!) see if you can find the rooster.

Tia Queta 4839 Del Ray Ave., Bethesda Phone: 301-654-4443 Hours: Open Tuesday-Sunday 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m., closed Mondays Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$7.95, entrees $11.95-$23.95 Wheelchair Access: Good

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