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Las Lomas
*** 1/2
Out of a possible five
$

Las Lomas shines on the little things

It’s not substantially different than most Mexican restaurants in the area, but it is the little things Las Lomas Mexican Grill on North Coliseum Boulevard does that lift it above the norm.

It started with a warm greeting as soon as I sat down, immediately followed by a basket of warm tortilla chips and a couple of mini carafes of salsa. And it carried on throughout the meal in subtle ways.

Take the standard refried beans, for example. They were good – slightly chunky and not too pasty – but the addition of a little melted white queso on top made them even better. Then there were the garnishes for my fish tacos: a mound of creamy guacamole and some fresh pico de gallo, which other places seldom include and often gouge you for on the bill if you ask for them.

Those little things were reflected in the service, also. The chips kept coming, the drinks never ran dry and each server was able to describe dishes and make suggestions when necessary, which is not always the case at Mexican restaurants.

My server walked me through the molcajete appetizer, which was new to me. Described as being “served in an authentic stone molcajete, the traditional mortar and pestle used to prepare the spices for this delicious dip,” he explained that the dip consisted of avocado, shrimp, cilantro and spices, which are served warm. He also said it could be made to any level of spice I desired.

I chose mild and wished I had asked for spicy. The shrimp were plentiful and sweet, the avocado was fresh and smashed to the point of being slightly creamy but not pulverized, but it needed a little more heat, which I was able to get by adding salsa.

The best appetizer option was the ultimate loaded queso, described as a “tantalizing queso dip bursting with jack cheese, seasoned ground beef, beans, guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream and jalapenos.” But it wasn’t really a dip at all; it arrived on a plate with the melted cheese covering the bottom and all of the other ingredients neatly separated on top. It was really just a great sampler you could attack with chips grabbing whatever you wanted and mixing ingredients to come up with new flavors. Everything was fresh, and it is an appetizer I will probably now order every time I go to Las Lomas.

Although the accompaniments were great, the fish tacos could have been better. The “grilled” tilapia had no visible grill marks and actually appeared to be lightly dredged with breading, which had me thinking they weren’t grilled at all. The fish was moist, flaky and decent, but the added char flavor from a grill would have made them better than just average. I also did not care for the side of charro beans as they were overcooked to the point that the skin was peeling off them.

The best entrée I tried was the pollo chipotle, a fajita-style dish featuring grilled chicken breast meat – which was actually grilled – lightly coated in a dark red, peppery-hot chipotle sauce. The sauce on the tender chicken had a sweet flavor at first, but then the peppers kicked in. Another nice unexpected touch lifted this dish – a little corn on the side to add some sweetness to the fire.

The border enchiladas were also coated in a red sauce, but this one was a chunkier, cheese-and-cilantro-dotted ranchero sauce that resembled salsa. It was more sweet than hot and worked well with the hearty ground beef and cheese inside.

The barbacoa-filled chimichanga was coated in creamy queso sauce but still remained nicely crisp on the outside. The stringy beef inside was like mom’s good ’ol pot roast and, again, the toppings of lettuce, pico, sour cream and guacamole were fresh and lively.

The attention to detail could even be seen in the desserts. The tres leches cake looked dense and dry, but each bite of the cream-soaked cake melted in your mouth. And every bite of the corn flake and cinnamon-coated fried ice cream crunched, which pleased me since most of the cereal-incorporated versions do not.

Like its older sister store on Fairfield Avenue, the old building the north side Las Lomas calls home has been decorated pretty well. The giant fish tank that was installed by the former Chinese restaurant is still there, and the main dining room has the usual Mexican knickknacks and brightly painted, heavy chairs. The black-and-white Mexican street scenes dotting the walls and the stone tile floors give it a bit of a cantina feel, which really comes to life in the back bar room – which is open to all.

Its floors have a wood appearance and there is a nifty canopy-covered bar that kind of resembles a streetside food stall.

Restaurant: Las Lomas Mexican Grill

Address: 1535 Coliseum Blvd. N.

Phone: 426-1118

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Mexican

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Molcajete ($6.99), ultimate loaded queso ($6.99), chimichanga ($7.99), pollo chipotle ($8.99), fish tacos ($10.99), fried ice cream ($3.79), tres leches ($3.59)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** (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. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net, and you can hear Ryan from 3 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.

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