A Notch Above 

Fresh ingredients, impeccable preparation and a little bit of magic combine to make a meal at Maria Bonita memorable

Sometimes it's difficult to round up foodie friends for a restaurant foray. They've all become so jaded, so hard to please. It was the hard-core loyalists, then, who accompanied me to the newest Mexican restaurant in town, and those who sniffed, "Rice and beans again? I'll pass," missed out.

Opened recently by Raul Gonzalez and Aurelio Rodriguez, both with extensive experience in California restaurants, Maria Bonita sits in the Uintah space vacated by Amanda's Fonda. (Amanda is now focusing her energy on the Manitou location and the Navajo Hogan). Maria Bonita's physical space is open and welcoming; high-backed booths offer some privacy while murmurs of Spanish (and in the case of a large family party nearby, the holiday singing of children) mingle with sounds of Mexican music. All in all, there's high ethnic authenticity that reaches its zenith in the ambitious menu.

The chips on the table are homemade; the salsa is zingy with scallions, red onion, cilantro and tomatoes. From a tempting appetizer menu, featuring quesadillas, nachos with baby shrimp, Mexican pizza and Queso Fundido (with mushrooms, beef, bell peppers and onion), we opted for Appetizer Maria. Anything that includes the name of the restaurant (although allegedly there is no real Maria standing guard in the kitchen) is generally a good choice. This one was excellent. It's a sampler plate -- nachos, chicken taquitos, a beef or chicken quesadilla -- all garnished with generous dollops of sour cream and guacamole. The taquitos were crisp and virtually greaseless (which is another way of saying they were cooked perfectly at the right temperature), the quesadilla tortillas were light enough to float, and the platter had a nice presentation.

We saw the same concern in our entrees. Often plates of Mexican food look like junior high-school cafeteria ladies dished them out. At Maria Bonita, someone in the kitchen cares enough to arrange things carefully. Seafood enchiladas were artfully decorated with slices of avocado. Pork burritos had a definable array of green chili rather than an enveloping dousing. It was easy to tell the separate items on one of the combo plates we tried. All in all, a notch above the usual.

The food itself was several notches above the usual. Fresh ingredients, impeccable preparation and a little bit of magic combine to make the meal memorable. Seafood plays a major role in the menu. Enchiladas come packed with delicious shrimp, scallops, crab and octopus in a creamy tomato and cheese sauce. The same mixture of seafood is used in chimichangas (fried so perfectly they're almost flaky). Fajitas are made with shrimp and mushrooms (also available in three other preparations -- a devilishly hot sauce, a garlic sauce, and a mild cream sauce.)

If seafood's not your first choice, consider some of the house specials like carnitas, the Chuletas de Puerco (pork chops in a spicy green chili), or the Enchiladas Dona Maria, filled with steak and chicken fajitas. All three, as with most entrees, come with rice and beans, tastier than any I've had elsewhere.

There are 18 combination plates and the option to design your own with two or three choices. Since many of the items are available as appetizers, I'd suggest ordering them for starters and going straight to the specialties. There are some tempting beef and chicken dishes -- like Tam Piquena, steak with shrimp topped with melted cheese, and Chicken with Mole. If you have an agreeable dining partner, consider the Combo Dona Maria (featuring steak, chicken and shrimp), one of the menu items intended for two.

Even the more standard dishes were good. The bite-size chunks of pork in one burrito were tender and tasteful, almost as if they had been marinated and slow cooked. The chili rellenos had a rare lightness and delicacy. Nothing we tried disappointed us. What we tried, however, was just a fraction of what's available.

The menu is vast and will require time for complete consideration. Start with a margarita; at Maria Bonita it's not the often sickly sweet limey slurp some places offer, but a professional-strength drink served in a heavy goblet. The larger of the two available sizes requires two hands. Sip it slowly. You'll only need one.

There are some vegetarian choices and some pared-down dishes "Para Los Ninos." Dessert choices include flan, sopapillas, churros, deep-fried ice cream (which I love), and deep-fried cheesecake (which I cannot imagine). Needless to say, we were too stuffed from our food (and too woozled from the margaritas) to order dessert.

The best news of all is that Maria Bonita is open for lunch with many of the dinner choices available at lunchtime prices. That's not to suggest that dinner will break the bank -- most entrees are under $11. At lunch, prices drop to under $7. Service is extraordinarily quick and friendly; don't worry if you have a limited lunchtime. You'll be in and out in no time, with a fabulous meal in between.


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