What if they changed a restaurant’s name, but kept the same owners and menu?
Doesn’t happen often but that’s what took place when Anita’s Mexican Grill, a longtime Mexican/Salvadoran restaurant on California Avenue near Coconut Joe’s and a huge In Shape gym, which used to be a Circuit City became Valentina’s Mexican Restaurant. The good news is they haven’t ditched the Salvadoran options on the menu.
Someone in the kitchen deserves credit for creating a burrito that just screams out “Buy me, Gym Rat!” It’s the muscle burrito ($12), made with grilled chicken breast, black beans, greens, guacamole all wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla. Just oozes health after a lifting session.
What this restaurant does well is a lunch buffet (weekdays 11 a.m.-2 p.m.), where you can sample their pupusas if you’re not certain you’d like the Salvadoran turnover that’s stuffed with chicken, pork, cheese or loroco, an edible flower. If lunch is not possible, you can also get them on a platter at dinner ($10). What we’ve also enjoyed there in the past are the blackened chicken tacos ($13), which also kind of tells you what kind of restaurant this is — a mix, a fusion independent. Cajun, Mexican, Salvadoran? They go their own way in the kitchen, mixing and matching depending on what they like. Not afraid to push boundaries at all.
The interior is casual and comfortable, walk in and a friendly staffer will ask where you’d like to sit. On a recent dinner visit, my companion had to get one of the Salvadoran entrees, the plantanos fritos ($8) while I had heard good things about the arroz con pollo ($14), chicken with rice. Since they have six items on the vegetarian menu, we also sampled the veggie tostada ($9) as an appetizer.
A solid start it was. The tostada was exactly what they said it would be only much larger than we expected: crispy corn shells with black beans, lettuce, guacamole, tomato and a mix of jack and cheddar cheeses. We had thought it would be one crispy tortilla, but instead it looked like three flat crisp tortillas were underneath a green mountain of veggies. A meal in itself if you’re not that hungry.
The plantains were reminiscent of the excellent version we enjoy at Mama Roomba, with brown refried beans on the side, so crunchy on the outside but moist and soft inside, a dollop of sour cream on the side. The chicken with rice was amazing, cheese scorched on top of a beautiful mix of peppers and onions, grilled chicken breast strips, squash (the key ingredient to making this something special), all of this resting on a bed of rice rather than mixed together. That’s exactly the way I like it, and though we mentioned other things we’ve ordered in the past and enjoyed, I’d elevate this to the list of specialties. It’s that good.
A few other notes: My companion ordered a glass of house wine and the pour is exceedingly generous. The casual service we found so welcoming does have limitations. It seemed to take a long time to get some utensils that were not routinely provided when the orders were taken. Also had to ask for water, though with all the years of drought that’s becoming a common practice. And a sign on the door said the big night here is Thursdays when they offer karaoke from 7 to 10 p.m. with taco specials from 5 to 10 p.m. Our weekend night visit did not have anyone belting out old Elvis tunes.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.