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La Margarita
***
Out of a possible five
$

Mexican fare solid, satisfying

It is often an afterthought on the side of the plate – hidden with pico de gallo or sliding off the top of the burrito and dying in the puddle of red sauce, sour cream and cheese that rests underneath.

But for those who love it, nothing is better with crispy hot tortilla chips than fresh, tasty guacamole.

The folks at La Margarita – namely owner Leo Ochoa, whose family has owned the place on South Calhoun Street for 40 years – appreciate the smashed avocado dip so much that they make it fresh to order.

They are so serious that during a recent visit I could not order it because the fruits were a little too hard and not ripe enough, and La Margarita did not want to serve an inferior product.

If the avocados are ripe, you will receive a creamy mix of guacamole dotted with fresh diced tomatoes and onions. It comes in a small tortilla bowl, which is just as tasty and warm as the fresh white corn chips, and is topped with shredded cheddar. The freshness burst from each bite, and this guacamole took a back seat to no other in terms of texture and flavor.

Being one of the elder statesmen of Fort Wayne’s Mexican restaurants, La Margarita has made its mark with simple, solid, American-style Mexican food and stellar service. I never once felt unattended, and I really appreciated the cheery mood of my servers. And, oh yeah, they make a pretty tasty margarita, too.

The signature blue margarita is made with Blue Curacao and white Arandas tequila. They have been churning them out by the blender-full since 1983, and they are still sweet, smooth and refreshing with their spicy food.

A heavy dose of jalapenos made the Big Al’s Special quite a spicy dish. This behemoth of a tostada covered an entire plate and had a crispy fried tortilla base covered with beans, ground beef, lettuce, tomato, guacamole, melted cheese and those peppers. It was sort of like a giant taco salad, and I found myself fighting my way through to the bottom to get more of the tortilla and beans.

The Mariachi Plate was the most impressive dish I sampled. Three flour tortillas are filled with diced round steak or pork, or, in my case, two with chicken and one with pork. La Margarita allowed me to specialize my order with no problem. The beef was OK – stringy like roast with a somewhat smoky red sauce – and the stringy, carnitas-style pork was perfect. It was so juicy it dripped from my tortilla, and it had that distinctive rich flavor good pork should have. The platter included a side boat of shredded lettuce, tomato, cheese and four avocado wedges, which combined with the meat to make the perfect tacos.

The chicken in the chicken burrito grande also played a starring role. This foot-long burrito was about 4 inches wide, and it was completely blanketed in melted cheddar cheese. Inside the soft, tender tortilla was the succulent chicken that was stewed in a bright red sauce that was robust but still a bit tangy. Lettuce, tomato and sour cream were offered on the side instead of on top, which was a nice touch.

Also on the side of all the entrées were rice and beans. The rice was decent with just flecks of red sauce dotting the perfectly cooked rice, but the beans had an outstanding smooth, creamy texture that had me scraping my plate with chips.

The only real disappointment at La Margarita was the salsa. The mild version, which has been made the same way for 40 years, Ochoa said, is a pretty basic and boring blended tomato mix with more of a ketchup flavor than a zesty salsa flavor. The spicy salsa is much better as the heat gives it a more profound flavor, but it was still not outstanding by any means.

The complimentary Mexican potato soup – diced potatoes in a red broth – was also rather bland but was much improved with a little salt and some of the spicy salsa.

The Carlito’s Special, a combo platter including four enchiladas – chicken, beef, steak and cheese – was hefty and satisfying with that same chicken and the velvety cheese versions being the best. But all were enjoyable thanks to the hearty, brown homemade enchilada gravy that would pretty much make anything taste good.

My visits to La Margarita were much like that gravy. It was pretty straightforward and not really exciting or fancy; it was just solid and satisfying.

Restaurant: La Margarita

Address: 2713 S. Calhoun St.

Phone: 456-5857

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Mexican

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol served: Full bar

Credit cards accepted: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Guacamole ($6.49), Big Al’s Special ($14.99), Carlito’s Special ($16.99), Mariachi Plate ($13.29), chicken burrito grande ($11.49)

Rating breakdown: Food: * 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130, or go to the “Dining Out” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net. DuVall’s past reviews can also be found at the Web site, and you can hear Ryan from 5 to 6 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.

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