The Real Enchilada 

Rita's Mexican food transcends ordinary expectations

click to enlarge Waiting for the Big Burrito at Ritas - SCOTT LARRICK

They were fools not to stay. The party of four that entered the restaurant ahead of us turned tail and left when they heard Rita's had not yet gotten a liquor license. Now, a margarita is nice with Mexican food -- indeed, for some people the food is often just an excuse to have a margarita -- but it's hardly missed at Rita's. The food is that good.

Rita Real, matriarch of what I hope is a large family, started out in Taos. Two of her siblings now run her two restaurants there (both also called Rita's). The new site, in the lovely old building on Colorado Avenue vacated when Corbett's closed, is manned by her children. Rita runs the kitchen and runs it as though we diners out front were family friends over for a meal.

We started with an appetizer of chicken quesadillas, the first surprise. Mexican food is an easy cuisine to do poorly. Given the preponderance of mediocre Mexican restaurants (Tex-Mex cooking alone has ruined the palates of generations), one tends to lower one's expectations. Rita's homemade flour tortillas are so good she could have filled them with wallpaper paste and we'd have been happy. That they contained freshly cooked chicken and mild cheese, and came with shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes and onions, and her wonderfully subtle salsa (homemade again, see the pattern?) made that $4.49 appetizer cheap at twice the price.

I would recommend either of the nachos appetizers based solely on the tastiness of the homemade chips. Regular Nachos can be had for $3.49; Nachos Supreme (cheese, beef, beans, sour cream, guacamole) for $5.49. A variant of nachos I will always associate with Iowa, Frito Pie, is yours for $2.99. Posole and menudo, Mexican cooking's comfort foods, go for $3.99.

The menu offers all the standards you'd expect -- burritos, tacos, enchiladas -- with some interesting variations and idiosyncratic versions of other dishes. Burritos, for example, include shredded beef, shredded pork or chicken, but are also made with chicken and mole, that magical sauce, a chile relleno, ham and eggs, chorizo and eggs or potatoes and eggs. (Not for nothing does the restaurant open at 8 a.m.)

Some special platters are Rita's own takes on Middle America's cooking: Chicken in a Mushroom Cream Sauce or Pollo al'Orange, a fried chicken breast, are served with pasta, and Onion Beef Steak comes with refried beans, rice and tortillas. At $8.49 for the chicken dishes and $8.99 for any beef dish, even the prices are Middle America-affordable.

We stayed with more traditional fare: Albondigas, Spanish meatballs, spicy meat with hard-cooked egg in the center, in a smoky chipotle sauce, came with wonderfully flavorful, slow-cooked black beans. The pork Carnitas were crispy nuggets of pork balanced with thin al dente strips of red pepper. They came with refried beans instead of the black beans indicated on the menu (more of a suggestion box than a rule book, I think). You could probably get either.

The best choice of our first visit was the Chicken and Mole Plate. Mole is a long term commitment on a cook's part. The complex blending of dried chiles, nuts, seeds, spices and Mexican chocolate takes hours of preparing and days of culinary fusion. There are no shortcuts. The sauce becomes the stew; the chicken in it almost plays second fiddle. Rita's red mole (mole roja) is stunning; and if that weren't enough, she also makes a mole verde, wherein dried chipotles and ancho chiles are replaced by green chiles, tomatillos take over for tomatoes, and cilantro and other green herbs dominate over spices like cloves and cinnamon.

A terrific way to confirm that what Rita serves is better than what you might be used to would be to order the Combination Plate. Compare your memories of enchiladas, tamales and chiles rellenos with what you'll taste here: a tamale made of the fluffiest, lightest corn dough filled with the freshest beef; a chicken-stuffed white corn enchilada covered with a rich sauce hinting of lime and cilantro, each mouthful finishing with a delightful back-of-the-throat kick; and a huge poblano chile, almost the size of a tennis ball, lightly breaded and perfectly fried so the cheese within flows like caramel.

If you dine with querulous children for whom Mexican food alone isn't enough of a treat, Rita offers a kid's menu with quesadillas, tacos, burgers and fries. If you dine with -- what, idiots? -- regular chicken or ham sandwiches on bread are available. There are three generic booths along the wall and heavy pine tables and chairs set with Mexican tiles throughout the rest of the room. Assorted weavings and random paintings adorn the walls. The house lights are too bright; a few candles on the tables would add immeasurably to the atmosphere. Once that food arrives, however, you won't notice anything except what's on your plate.


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