La Paz Restaurante and Cantina

Flavor: Mexican
Ambiance: Casual and fun
Service: Cheerful, slightly spacey

When I was barely into my twenties, my then-boyfriend – a decided tequila aficionado – and a group of our friends would occasionally step out for what we affectionately referred to as “schwag Mexican night.” These events were hosted by a shifting rotation of taco huts serving cheese-enrobed food that was short on flavor but long on lard. Pitchers of margaritas were the star, the meal itself somewhat of an afterthought – though it probably lent just as much to the resulting heartburn as the sour mix in the drinks. Though the aftermath of the chemical-laden evening would be lousy for most everyone involved, the trips were pretty popular for the fun and festivity of it all – indigestion be damned.

Since then, Mexican night has slowly faded into the background of my culinary excursions, for various reasons. For one, I’ve discovered that cheap sour mix is definitely not my friend, and budget tequila, for that matter, is now entirely out of the question. I’m not completely above eating refried beans and hard tacos, but if neither crosses my palate ever again, I won’t be heartbroken.

These days, I tend to scratch the itch for casual Mexican with a giant California-style burrito from one of the several spots around town that serves that kind of thing, but there’s one craving that I haven’t tended to in quite a while. Sometimes, you understand, a girl just needs to suck down a quality margarita in a goblet as big as her head to forget that it’s winter, and on a recent Sunday, I had a chance to do just that.

Enter La Paz in Asheville, one of what the restaurant’s Web site describes as “a collection” of seven locations in the Southeast. The same site goes on to describe the fare served at La Paz in rather hyperbolic fashion as “Mexican food at its finest.” This is, indeed, a little exaggerated – the food can be rather ordinary much of the time, but there are some things that help La Paz rise above your average generic Mexican restaurant.

There is, for one, the quality of many of the ingredients. The complimentary salsa was filled with fresh herbs and vegetables, and the guacamole was great, as well. Very fresh, chunky, spiked with garlic and slightly spicy, the guac might possibly have been the best part of the meal. It’s served in such a generous portion that a wee creature like myself could easily make a meal out of it with the addition of, say, a beer or two.

Speaking of which, the bar offers a beer selection that rises above the standard Dos Equis and Corona. On the evening I visited, I noticed local brews on tap – Pisgah’s organic pale and porter and Highland’s Gaelic – among others. The draught beers are served up cold enough to be just short of frozen, which will definitely be more of a plus when icy-beer-on-the-porch weather rolls around.

The restaurant also seems to make a concerted effort to employ certain food items that one might not expect to find in the standard Mexican restaurant. Take the king crab and artichoke enchiladas, for instance, or the tamarind barbeque sauce with the mesquite baby-back ribs. Of course, should you so desire, you can go in the opposite direction with the cozily familiar beef-taco basket, or if you dare, go where I went – with a basket of jalapeño poppers, ordered for the sheer nostalgic frivolity of it all. Jalapeño poppers are one of those cheesy, guilty, bad-for-you pleasures, like the addictive vacuousness that is American Idol. We had some fun with them, once the molten cream cheese inside cooled down. The orange/jalapeño jelly served alongside provided a touch of interest, if an overpoweringly saccharine one.

The vegetarian tamale is a dish best left to cheese lovers – veggie fans, get a salad. The little steamed parcels came served in a corn husk, filled with green chilies and cheese, and topped with a delicious smoked yellow-pepper sauce and a red-chili sauce. Unfortunately, the promised vegetables – spinach, corn and zucchini – were so difficult to find as to be almost nonexistent.

An order of “Baja Beach” fish tacos won points for freshness with the flavorful grouper tucked inside flour tortillas with cabbage, a “chipotle tartar” and large slices of soft avocado. Perhaps the generous use of avocado is what drove the price point of the entree to around $14. The pico de gallo served alongside was fresh and tasty as well, but could have been made from riper tomatoes. The dish, as a whole, was enjoyable, especially when washed down with my big-enough-for-a-man (but made for a woman) margarita.

The Papa Grande, a nearly $10 concoction, is a monster of a drink featuring Patron Silver tequila and La Paz’s “homemade” mix (according to our server, lime juice, Cointreau and sour), all served in what looks like a footed candy dish with a salt rim. This one’s large enough for two, but that didn’t stop me from drinking the whole darned thing. I had a designated driver, after all.

The drink, to me, is the essence of La Paz. It’s fun and loose. The service is light and casual (if you hate it when servers plunk themselves down at your table, stay home), the atmosphere is also fun, provided that “golden oldies” don’t irk you. It’s a good spot to drink giant mixed drinks, especially out on that big porch in the front come warm weather. The food may not be Mexican at its “finest,” but the ingredients are very fresh, there’s actually some spice to much of it, and La Paz is trying to venture into creative waters (without going too far into the deep end).

And best of all, my meal left me with not a trace of post-festivity heartburn or indigestion.

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