Atmosphere: Whitewashed Mexican cafe. Hours: Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. daily; lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Price range: $6.75 to $8.95. Reservations: Available; recommended for Friday and Saturday evenings. Credit Cards: American Express, Mastercard, Visa. Special facilities; Accessible to patrons in wheelchairs; booster seats for children; on-street parking.
At 5:30 on a recent Sunday evening, Tia Queta had barely opened its doors. So it wasn't surprising that, while we were nibbling on tacos and awaiting our dinner, we could overhear the waitress/customer exchange at the only other occupied table.
A five-member family with three young children told the waitress they had never had Mexican food and would like some guidance in ordering their dinner. The waitress disappeared into the kitchen and brought out the chef -- a big, smiling, mustachioed young man who spoke mostly Spanish. After making gentle inquiries about the family's likes and dislikes, he recommended several dishes.
We received similar attention a few minutes later when our food arrived. We, too, had asked the waitress for some advice (one member of our party wanted to avoid hot sauces) and she had suggested a special of the day, lamb with a vegetable sauce ($8.95). When she brought the dish, however, she said the vegetable sauce hadn't been ready and the chef had put a spicier ranchero sauce on it, but that if we found it too hot, the dish would be replaced with another. The lamb was tasted and the sauce pronounced acceptable, but Tia Queta's concern didn't stop there. Out came the chef to check for himself: Was the lamb all right? Was the sauce too hot? Would we like to order something else? And how were the other dishes? Was everyone happy?
We don't expect the chef to appear when we go out to eat, and the Tia Queta staff's concern is nothing short of charming. The attention was delightful, made us feel important and, though we're sure the food was excellent to begin with, it made everything tests just a little bit better.
So did the setting. Tia Queta isn't fancy: it's a small restaurant with one square room. But the walls are whitewashed stucco, the tablecloths are brown-checked, the chairs are straight-backed and wood and the occasional plant and wall hanging are just the right minimal touch. In the background are faint strains of lively Mexcian music.
We began with crisp, just-made taco chips with a fresh tomato dip, the bread and butter of a Mexican restaurant. They tided us over while we studied the menu. Tia Queta is not inexpensive, unfortunately -- platters with tacos or enchiladas ($6.95) are the least expensive entrees available -- but the portions are generous and include vegetables or salads.
We splurged on an appetizer, mejillones ($3.75), a platter of 16 baked, seasoned mussels on the half shell. It was a perfect dish to share four ways and a reminder of how well seafood blends with Mexican seasonings.
In addition to the special lamb dish, which was tender and succulent, we tried two other specials: red snapper ($9.95), which was delicately seasoned, gently broiled and just right for those who want to try more subtle Mexican seasonings, and chiles rellenos ($8.50), which featured a chile carefully cleaned of the seeds that make chiles hot and then stuffed with cheese. Our son not only gave this dish rave reviews while he was gobbling it up, but has asked to return to Tia Queta for a repeat performance.
Our daughter tried a dish from the "Comida Tipica" (typical dishes) section of the menu: enchiladas rancheras ($6.75), a platter of tortillas filled with very tender, seasoned beef and topped with a chile sauce. Though the sauce was hot, the spices were used more to enliven than to overwhelm. The platter also came with lettuce, tomato, rice and refried beans. Most of us were served refried beans with our entree, and though beans tend to be beans, these were unusually smooth and well-seasoned.
In the interest of research, we tried two desserts. A flan ($2.50) was good but ordinary, but "platano al herno" ($1.75), a banana broiled in its skin and sweetened with honey and brown sugar, was memorable.
The tab for our dinner was also memorable, unfortunately, for being on the high side. It came to $45.25 for four, including tax and some Mexican beers. If we take our son back for chiles rellenos, we'll probably forego the appetizer, share one of the wonderful banana desserts and hope the tab stays closer to $35.