New Las Margaritas is more than just a pretty face


Las Margaritas serves a range of dishes including Hawaiian fajitas, pictured, with a margarita and side items.

Photos by Erica Brough/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, March 27, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2014 at 11:46 a.m.

Sooner or later, I was bound to eat my words.

Facts

Las Margaritas

Location: 4405 NW 39th Ave.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Food: Mexican
Atmosphere: Delightful and family friendly with artisanal furnishings
Service: Well above average
Libations: Full bar
Info: 374-6699, www.lasmargaritasgnv.com

Never would I have guessed it would be Las Margaritas that made me do it.

Las Margaritas is a restaurant I never liked. I spent the better part of 20 years avoiding the place. I disparaged it. I decided after a few visits in the mid-1990s that it was “gringo food” and wanted nothing more to do with it.

I spent a significant portion of my life in the American Southwest, so I am a snob when it comes to Mexican food.

Once you live in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, travel frequently to Mexico, and then move to Florida, you will not be impressed with the “Mexican” food here. Trust me.

I found it so bland, predictable and boring that I gave up on it. For years, I refused to eat any Mexican food I didn't cook myself.

What eventually turned me around was a place on Southwest 13th Street called La Tienda. There is nothing fancy about La Tienda. It has little ambience, but it serves the most authentic Mexican food I've had in Florida, and most of its clientele is Hispanic. (You always can tell a great ethnic restaurant by its clientele.)

Las Margaritas is from the same owner, Alberto Roman and family, but it's aimed at a different niche. It's been around for many years, but Roman built a new, standalone building on Northwest 39th Avenue in 2011. I had to check it out, right?

This place overflows with ambience. Everywhere you look, there is something worth looking at. The chairs alone are worthy of a folk-art museum. They are one-of-a-kind, hand-carved and hand-painted. There is a delightful outside dining area that fronts the parking lot rather than the street. There is a lovely bar.

In short, this definitely is not the tacky, fake-adobe, dusty pinata atmosphere you've seen elsewhere.

But don't let that deter you. The new Las Margaritas is not just a pretty face. The food is good, too. And the menu is huge, but quite inexpensive considering all of the above.

Before you go to Las Margaritas (or any quality Mexican restaurant) though, please accept this advice from the Mexican food snob: Chimichangas, soft tacos and “seven-layer” burritos are not what you should be ordering. That stuff they serve at Taco Bell has jaded you.

Expand your horizons, and you will find a host of wonderful flavors and textures in Mexican cuisine. Much of it is not spicy, at least not spicy from a Thai, Szechuan or New Mexican perspective, but it is filled with complex, delicious flavors. It's sophisticated food.

You owe it to yourself to try something you've never had before.

I think Las Margaritas has a particularly deft hand with chicken dishes.

Chicken palapa is among my favorites. It's a chicken breast, pounded thin and topped with sautéed poblano pepper strips, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes and a red wine sauce. Mexican rice and refried beans are served alongside ($6.25 lunch/$9.25 dinner). Grouper palapa is $3 more.

The complementary corn chips and salsa are good, too. No flavorless white corn here, and every patron gets a colorful private salsa bowl, a nice touch that eliminates any worries about “double dipping.” The guacamole, however, doesn't excite me.

For the person in your party who thinks they don't like Mexican food, consider Chicken Acapulco. This one is tropical in nature, marinated in orange, pineapple, garlic and “tropical spices.” It's sautéed, topped with diced pineapple and served with Mexican rice and refried beans ($6.25/$9.25).

Enchiladas Rancheras is not something I would normally suggest ordering (see above), but I couldn't resist when the menu described it as three cheese enchiladas topped with shredded roast pork, grilled tomatoes, bell peppers and onions, served with guacamole salad. (Imagine enchiladas topped with Cuban pork a la ropa vieja, if there is such a thing).

Enchiladas are made or broken by the quality of the corn tortillas, and these tortillas were first rate. ($7.25/$9.25).

Oh, and don't forget to try the margaritas. The drinks are good and well priced.

The truth is, I never would have gone to the new Las Margaritas if not for the recommendation of a friend I trust (sort of).

Now, here I am eating my words. At least they are low in calories.

David Carlson has been writing about food and wine for more than 20 years. Email him at dave@carlsonfamily.net. Dining is done anonymously and without advance notice. All meals are paid for by The Gainesville Sun.

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