Like my dinner at Lorena's, dinner at Plaza Ventana last week was transporting: but instead of ending up in Mexico, being there reminded me of a lot of Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants I've eaten at in Phoenix, which was, for the most part, a good thing!
Although the hounds described the place as upscale, I'd say it was only so in comparison to somewhere like Lorena's: the interior has lots of bright colors, a few fountains and a bit of Mexican kitsch. Several rooms and well-spaced tables made for a casual and festive but comfortable dining experience. The parking lot was quite full when we arrived at around seven on a Wednesday night,but the place is large and we were seated right away without a reservation.
Service was friendly but a little bit scattered. We were only given two menus and two place settings. We eventually got another place setting but never did get a third menu despite three or four requests in English and in Spanish, and that set the tone for other service glitches. (Interestingly, while the clientele at Plaza Ventana includes more Anglos than at Lorena's, the level of English spoken by our server at least was still fairly basic. It wasn't a factor in the scattered service, however, since my Spanish is well up to the task of ordering in any restaurant.). Service was also a bit slow, but since we were there to socialize we didn't care. We did think it was odd that when we left at 8:45 p.m. we literally closed the place down: Is Fresno really such an early closing town?
Hubby, colleague J and I needed margaritas. They have a nice selection of tequilas and we happily ordered selections with some of the better tequilas. Big mistake. Unfortunately, the margaritas were the low of the evening: I guess given the quality of the tequilas I was expected more than low quality margarita mix with no fresh lime in sight...and not much alcohol either. Next time, I'd stick to beer.
Chips were store-made and nothing special, and came with three salsas: a salsa crudo, a chipotle, and a salsa verde. All three were tasty, but not particularly hot.
It took us a while to review the menu, which is huge and varied. As was the case at Lorena's, I was struck by the number of shrimp and seafood dishes: it is interesting to me that the variety of seafood at Mexican restaurants in the Central Valley seems to be larger than at home in San Francisco.
And surprise: they also had albondigas! Perhaps it is only in SF where albondigas seem to be relegated to being an occasional or weekly special if on the menu at all?
So, my ordering was easy: it was actually in Phoenix that I got hooked on albondigas, and since the place reminded me of Phoenix restaurants, I knew I had to try them two nights in a row....Once again, I was worried soup wouldn't be enough, (I never learn) so I got a side of a chile relleno. Hubby ordered the carnitas, and J got a fish taco with rice and beans.
It took a while for our food to come, but when it did it was mostly hot and portions were huge. No little side dishes of condiments for the albondigas, but it did have chopped fresh cilantro already in the dish. And best of all: they were great! Well seasoned meatballs, in a flavorful, thick, meat and tomato based broth, with vegetables: these were the albondigas that are so hard to find at home, and if I lived in Phoenix, uh, I mean Fresno I'd go regularly just to get my fix!
The chile relleno was cold, unlike the rest of the dishes, overly breaded, and in a very bland sauce. I took just three bites and left the rest, and wouldn't order it again. Poor execution.
Hubby's carnitas were quite good: lots of flavor, dripping with juice and just the right amount of fat, served with decent guacamole, excellent black beans, and good but not great Mexican rice, as well as a side of fresh, hot but probably not house made tortillas. I'd love to bring tortillas from Lorena's to eat with those carnitas!
J wasn't happy with her fish taco: I think she was expecting a baja style taco, perhaps with a fried taco shell, and instead she got a large and perfectly grilled piece of halibut lying on top of a tortilla and some cole slaw, with rice and beans on the side. Personally, I thought it looked great, and a small taste confirmed my thought that it would be a very good choice for someone looking for a healthy alternative to the higher calorie options that dominate the menu: also, it was a great value: basically she paid for a taco and got a fish dinner.
Total for our dinner for three with plenty to eat, five margaritas, tax and tip was around $87. A few lows, more highs, and a good value given the quality and quantity and enjoyable surroundings.
Postscript on the rest of our trip: we ended up cooking all our meals at our Yosemite cabin, partly because of the weather, partly just because we were being homebodies, so nothing to report there. However, on our way out of town from Fresno to Yosemite we had a burger and a shake at the Colorado Grill: sort of a fake fifties vibe, real ice cream in the milk shakes, good burgers made fresh. Friendly service. Not sure if this is a chain or not, but worth a stop.
Thanks again to the hounds for the suggestions to help me get my Mexican food fix in Fresno!