Despite it being mid-October, the small garden in front of La Mexicana on State Street in Schenectady was still fragrant with mint. On the right was a sister store selling the ingredients we were about to sample in the attached restaurant. We entered the gaily decorated restaurant with enthusiasm.
The bar, dressed in the sparkling garb of a well-lit Christmas tree, had an audience of a dozen tables, some high-tops, most at dining room height. Despite the fact that it was a weeknight, the tables were already filling with patrons.
We—friends Gail and John—were hungry and ordered Nachos ($8.99) to nibble on until we had studied the menu and were ready to order. Unfortunately, our appetizer arrived with our entrees though it was worth the wait. Piled high was the usual combination of beans, sour cream, guacamole, pico de gallo, cheese, jalapenos and a meat of our choice—ground chorizo in this case.
John ordered Mexican Horchata ($3), a beverage made from white rice, cinnamon stick, vanilla extract, condensed milk and brown sugar, transferred to a blender, strained and cooled. A perfect drink for calming the flames of spicy salsa that accompanied the initial plastic basket of tortilla chips.
His three Flautas (Spanish for “flutes,” $12.99) consisted of rolled-up fried tortillas stuffed with chicken, topped with sour cream, lettuce, tomato, avocado slice, with rice and beans served on the side. John judged the flautas “dry” with minimal filling.
Gail’s pork tamales (three for $10) were topped with lettuce and sour cream. Two were consumed with gusto, and one was brought home for her breakfast. Chicken tamales were also available for the same price.
My order was initially less satisfying. I wanted to try The Mojarra Frita (Fried tilapia, $15.99), but our server Julia announced they were out of tilapia that evening. I switched rapidly to Chiles Rellenos (two poblano chiles, lightly breaded, stuffed with chicken and Mexican cheese with rice and beans on the side, $12.99) and was not disappointed.
My meal was accompanied by an attractive quartet of sour cream, salad composed of chopped tomatoes and shredded lettuce, rice and refried beans sprinkled with what appeared to be feta cheese or a close relative. The chiles rellanos also included three warm foil-wrapped flour tortillas, perfect for swaddling and consuming morsels of beans, salad and sour cream. Only guacamole was missing.
An aside on “red or green”: I visited Santa Fe, New Mexico on business two years ago. Prior to my visit, Santa Fe resident Bob warned me, “In New Mexico, when the server asks red or green, respond with caution.”
The colors represent the two major sources of heat—green salsa is made with tomatillos and jalapenos, while red is composed primarily of tomatoes and jalapenos. With some exceptions, red is generally hotter than green, and I foolishly opt to use both.
Rarely known to abstain from dessert, John and I shared Flan de Kahlua and Three Milk Cake (each a reasonable $3.50).
Known in Spanish as tres leches cake, the dessert gets its name from the three kinds of milk—whole, evaporated and sweetened condensed—used to make it. Understandably sweet and moist, this Mexican sheet cake is often topped with whipped cream and a cherry or a fresh strawberry. It had the consistency and flavor of vanilla cake dipped into sweet milk and would have paired perfectly with strong hot coffee.
The flan’s tamer sweetness and silky texture was flavored with a hint of the popular Mexican coffee cordial kahlua. The small dollops of whipped cream flanking opposite sides of the small round of custard seemed like gilding the proverbial lily. Already perfection, flan needs no garnishing.
The mojarras are a family of fishes which includes about 53 species. They are a common prey and bait fish in the Caribbean, as well as the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast of North America. Mojarra is also commonly used in Latin American countries as a name for various species of the cichlid family, including tilapia.
La Mexicana Grocery and Antojitos
WHERE: 1759 State St., Schenectady, (518) 346-1700
WHEN: Mon.-Sun., 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $35.38 without tax and tip
MORE INFO: Accessible, parking in front area, all major credit cards accepted, music permits conversation, takeout available, kids’ meals available