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Food with a Mission

La Mission
Robert Scheer

The Real Thing: Charming waitress Carmen Magaña is one authentic secret to La Mission's success.

Flavorful, friendly eatery feeds the faithful seven days a week

By Christina Waters

FOR SOME ROMANTICS, THE HOLY Grail is a golden chalice with supernatural properties. For others, it is a perfect, utterly moist chile relleno. If you're a member of the second unit, then read on because salvation has been located at Westside Santa Cruz's La Mission Mexican restaurant. Even if you didn't yet realize that La Mission contained the Holy Relleno, you'd smile the minute you walked in the door of this unassuming eatery.

Occupying the multi-cultural shopping strip in which we also find Sukeroku and Ristorante Avanti, La Mission feels like the calm before the fiesta. The brightly colored table cloths are sensibly protected with clear plastic, and traditional and pop Mexicana music booms happily from wall speakers In the large main dining room, a faux timbered ceiling nods to 18th-century mission architecture while pastel tissue decorations festoon the beams.

The visual boldness is more than matched at La Mission by a confident menu that spans heartland Mexico, from frontera flautas and nachos to a full line of mariscos, slow-simmered chile dishes and traditional tacos and sopes you can create to order.

Here, on this very menu--so vast it required the services of a very cold Bohemia beer ($2.50) before it could be properly surveyed--was the chile relleno of my dreams--or rather, my and Robert's dreams, since my lucky lunch partner managed to score more than his fair share of this irresistible dish.

None of the other stuff you've ever consumed--even though it might have been labeled "chile relleno"--was ever fit to occupy the same linguistic niche as this unbelievably creamy, succulent, salacious marriage of simmered chile, melted cheese, rich broth and sweet onions and tomatoes.

But let's set the stage for this miraculous encounter. Chips and dip are always friends to the hungry, and never more so than at La Mission, where the red sauce is bold and hot with plenty of mysterious depth. The salsa fresca is so obviously fresh, made of ripe ingredients and put together with all elements in such balance that my recollection of other versions immediately turned to cardboard. Hot serrenos are present, but diced small enough to distribute the heat evenly. The cilantro doesn't overwhelm. This is destination salsa, pure and simple. And the same goes for the creamy, house guacamole ($4), made of such full-flavored avocados that it could be lunch all by itself.

My usual lunch partner, Mr. B, has developed a serious La Mission cheese enchilada habit, and for his sake we sampled one of these textbook babies ($2.50). Robert ordered one of the seafood specialties, ceviche tostada and a snapper taco ($6.50), and I was curious about a carnitas sope ($3.25).

The cheese enchilada, slathered with that orange-brown sauce so beloved by fans of Mexican-American food, was true to type. Lots of gooey cheese interior, soft corn tortilla wrapper. But to me, it was just a silly cheese enchilada. The sope was another matter. The round, crisp, paper-thin pastry shell was filled to overflowing with what amounted to a roast pork confit, stewed in its own fat to the point of translucence. Rich beyond belief, it was soon packed to come home for a weekend lunch.

To Robert's credit, he was generous in sharing (I had already eaten all of mine) the outstanding refried beans for which La Mission has won a cult following. Equally good was the rice, which not only packed lots of tomato flavor, but was charmingly studded with peas. The fish taco, however, was so sour cream-drenched that it was in danger of resembling a fishwich on a tortilla. I'll never know how the ceviche was--Robert inhaled it in under one minute. I think that means he liked it.

My main course was the No. 22, the carne asada and chile relleno combo ($7.25). And here we got religion. Not only was the chile itself the stuff of sexual fantasy, but it came with lots of fun accompaniments, including the hot, vinegary carrots that La Mission uses generously as a garnish. The carne asada was another revelation--thinly sliced, lean steak quickly grilled and smothered with an aromatic profusion of grilled scallions and green peppers. A very classy creation and big enough for a big appetite.

While we might have preferred shredded cabbage instead of lettuce, and our dessert flan ($4) was not quite as custardy as desired (but it still provided a nice sweet jolt at the end of the spicy meal), we agreed that La Mission had made two more converts.


La Mission

Address: 1719 Mission St., SC
Phone: 426-3564
Hours: Daily breakfast, lunch, dinner from 11:30am-9:30pm.
Price: Inexpensive
Ambiance: ** 1/2 Low-key fiesta
Service: *** Friendly, hard-working staff
Cuisine: *** Authentic flavors dispatched with flair
Overall: A neighborhood destination that avoids gimmicks and fuss--just on-target cooking

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay


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From the January 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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