It's getting to be that time of year when al fresco dining begins to become the option of choice, particularly for those of us who live in that lovely area called the East County, where it's 20* or more hotter than the rest of the County. So last night I picked up a chef friend to investigate whether or not Mario's De La Mesa - in La Mesa - would be a worthy choice. The answer is a resounding "Yes" for the ambiance and patio dining and a "maybe, seems to have potential" for the food.
Mario's is located in an old house in the very last block of La Mea Blvd., on the East side of the street, right before it dead-ends at the Sun Valley pitch-and-putt golf course. In fact, if you don't know you're looking for an old house, you're apt to drive right by it. About 5 of the inside rooms have been converted into small, intimate dining areas seating anywhere from about 10-30 people in each room. The decor is subdued Mexican ranchero style.
It was 80* in La Mesa at 6 PM last night and in spite of the air conditioning, it was a bit warm inside, so we opted to sit outside on the patio. What a fantastic choice. We were led out one of the side doors, up a small flight of stairs and onto a well shaded, protected from the wind patio, well landscaped with lots of plants, that was quite pleasant.
The chips were nothing special, standard commerical, out of bag. The salsa was made from fresh ingredients but was somewhat on the bland side. (My Dos Equis, however, was perfect). The menu is not extremely extensive. It has about 12 "combo plates", a few burritos, a short a la carte section with the usual suspects - i.e. burritos, tacos, enchiladas, a house made pork tamale, and then a specials section with about 6 choices. I chose the chile relleno with shrimp in a green sauce from the specials section, and my chef friend chose the mole enchiladas from the combo side of the menu. The enchiladas were a hit. You don't see mole in San Diego a lot, and while this isn't the best version of mole negro I've eaten, it was respectable. I thought it was too sweet, the chef didn't he like it.
My chile relleno arrived swimming under the green sauce that, unforunately, had a glaze of oil floating on it as well. Since this restaurant was willing to serve mole, I was hoping they'd also be willing to serve a relleno in the style of Central Mexico - plump, in a feather-light batter, bathed in a thin sauce - not the style of Southern California. Guess I was wrong on that. I couldn't tell what kind of cheese had been used to stuff the chile because it was mild and overpowered by the green sauce. The green sauce was tasty, just too oily. The shrimps that came on top of the chile relleno, were, thankfully, plump, sweet and not over-cooked. They were complemented by the green sauce. The rice was fluffy with a nice mild chile flavor and the refried beans appeared and tasted like they were house-made NOT out of a can or worse yet, the dehydrated refried beans that are extremely popular these days.
One of the things that did impress me was that there was plenty of staff. There were multiple hostesses, the waitstaff was responsible for only a few tables, not whole rooms and there were bus-boys everywhere. Service was friendly, fast, efficient and unintrusive. The bussers were really great, gliding in and out to refill drinks and remove plates, almost without you knowing they were there. This was actually a working dinner, as the Chef and I were completing the menus for our next 3 classes at Balboa Food and Wine cooking school. On a busy Friday night - and every table was filled - they allowed us to sit at our table as long as we wanted without pushing us to turn the table.
Food, 1 beer, 1 iced tea, tax and tip came to $33. Mario's De La Mesa isn't trying to be an upscale Mexican place, nor is it a downscaled taqueria. It's a better choice than Acapulco, El Torito, Por Favor and the other chains turning out standardized, homogenous meals. The food may be a bit uneven, and the usual suspects may be the better choice, but this is a nice little family restaurant, providing decent food at reasonable prices, with good service in a part of the County that is woefully bereft of family restaurants serving decent food at reasonable prices with good service. So kick back on the patio this summer, enjoy a drink and let the rest of the East County swelter under the heat knowing that for a short bit of time you've found a refreshing retreat.