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Amanda's GM breaks out with his own spot, Hacienda Villarreal 

Appetite

click to enlarge A torta towers over basic beans and rice. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • A torta towers over basic beans and rice.

Ten soft shrimp bathe in a bright red chili-tequila-lime-garlic sauce before we interrupt them with buttered, garlic-rubbed Telera toast points. A mild, citrusy heat precedes a deep garlic essence that doesn't bite the tongue like raw garlic, tasting more like a richly infused oil. We dip, and dip again eagerly, before refusing to let our server Luis remove the purloined-prawn bowl. So long as minced garlic continued to cling to ceramic amidst the last wash of joyous juice, we'd defend it for future use.

For instance when he delivers our Chicken Milanesa Torta, and we dip bites for extra oomph. Not that it necessarily needs the accenting. It's plenty fine as schnitzel-like breaded chicken topped with queso fresco hunks, avocado fingers, jalapeños, tomatoes and a crema smear. Only advertised mesquite seasoning fails to show. Still, we're so contented by the sandwich's overall clean flavor combo.

Luis's father, Luis Villarreal Sr., co-owns 6-month-old Hacienda Villarreal with his son, and even cooks on his off days from overseeing Amanda's Fonda, as that company's GM. Luis Sr. has been with Amanda's since its inception, rising from line cook to leadership. But he craved a spot of his own, to spotlight his family's recipes; other family members cook when he's not present. He hopes to expand into a second location one day, too. Luis Jr. proffers a lot of ambitious talk with the humility of a young man still waiting for a liquor license to furnish the already-built-but-empty bar area. He grew up nearby, and warmly entertains us with local lore. Like the one about the car that drove through the front wall. Or the absurdly large hands of poker illegally played when this was formerly a seedy bar. Oh, and there was a murder, he says, after saying "I probably shouldn't tell you this while you're eating, but ..."

I have trouble picturing all that grime today when radiantly painted, hand-carved Mexican chairs fill the room. Luis Jr. makes recommendations from the large, affordable menu, and doesn't lead us astray but for a humdrum if bountifully portioned arroz con pollo. Green bell peppers overpower the flavor with Tex-Mex-style stringy melted cheese also topping red bell bits with onions, mushy mushrooms and the chicken. The Mexican rice acts as its usual blank template. We dump a side of house habanero salsa atop it to bring some party to the plate. That salsa is a must-request, served at no charge on both our visits. Luis Sr. deep-fries the habaneros with other chilies then purées them, and under all the scorch a hint of nuttiness remains — added peanut butter would be brilliant.

I'm probably thinking that because he does make a nice peanut butter-agave-chili sauce for his unique corn-flour dusted calamari, served as long, thick-but-tender spears. I can only guess that a little peanut might also factor into the mole as one of 25 "special ingredients," as it exudes richness with a lovely chocolatey backbone atop capable chicken enchiladas. A trio of street tacos uniformly pleases: a fresh Baja fish zings with chipotle-ranch tanginess; the pastor is the picture of pineapple-tenderized chewy pork cubes; and the Ensenada Shrimp tastes of bacon wrapped around Mexican beer-battered lime shrimp.

If sweetened jamaica, watermelon or pineapple juices haven't over-sugared you by dessert, a banana chimichanga stuffed with butter-pecan ice cream and garnished with Hershey's and whipped cream will. So too will the highly sweet, thin caramel sauce over an excellently textured flan. On the whole, the Villarreals shine pretty bright, undoubtedly beautifying the neighborhood.

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