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The American Mexican

by B.A. Nilsson on January 25, 2012

La Fiesta, 1610 Central Ave., Albany, 482-3940, lafiestamexican.com. Serving lunch 11-3 Mon-Sat, noon-3 Sun, dinner 11-9 Mon-Wed, 11-10 Thu-Sat, noon-9 Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Mexican-American

Entrée price range: $7.75 (grilled chicken salad) to $17 (fajitas del mar)

Ambiance: diner-like

Tortilla chips are my undoing. Especially when you present them warmed up and with a spicy side of salsa. The salsa at La Fiesta hasn’t any particular kick, at least to my jaded palate—my wife finds a presence of heat there—but I like the cilantro that’s unabashedly worked into it, and avail myself of the bottles of habanero sauce on the table to dance a lively samba on my tongue.

So what did I do when Susan and I stopped in at La Fiesta for dinner the other night? Bear with me, friend, I need to confess. I ordered nachos. Oh, yeah. Nachos with beef and beans ($7). “But you want a small order, right?” said our server. (She’d already inscribed our entrée orders on her pad.)

“Yes, of course,” I said ($4). I meant that all along.

The nachos are served with Monterey Jack cheese, insists the menu, and I don’t doubt it. But this is the kind of sauce that goes from can to steam table, applied with ladle or pump. Recipes I’ve found suggest that it’s really a Mornay sauce—a classic Béchemel, which is roux-thickened milk, cut with cheese (usually gruyere and/or parmesan). This doesn’t explain the plasticine elasticity of ballpark nacho cheese sauce, but La Fiesta’s sauce stays in touch with a credible measure of cheese reality. The problem—my problem—is that I can’t stop eating the damn things. Even the small-sized plate of nachos was a festival of the filling.

So when my entrée plate of chile colorado ($12) arrived, I was eating out of a sense of duty. “Chopped steak cooked in a hot, hot sauce,” promises the menu, and I assured our server that it couldn’t be too spicy—but it didn’t go past what I think of as the far end of mainstream, and the flavor balance was good. And it’s not chopped as in ground: these are small beef chunks.

The accompanying side of three flour tortillas allowed me to make my own tacos out of the meat, adding the plate’s refried beans and orange Mexican rice and borrowing sour cream from my wife’s plate just to be sure that when it squeezed out the other end and onto my sleeve, it would stick. She, meanwhile, had the enchiladas verdes ($12), chicken-filled (of course) corn tortillas topped with a bright green sauce made from tomatillas. This time, the Mexican rice was paired with lettuce, tomato and sour cream.

We chose from a familiar menu. It originated down the street at Pancho’s, whose owners, Rafael and Celiness Arellano, took a rent-increase hit after seven years at their location near Kurver Kreme. They moved in April to the new site not far from where the now-defunct Garcia’s used to be. The new location is no stranger to eateries. It spent three years as Christina’s on the Avenue; before that, it was, among other incarnations, the Village Café and the Hungry Horseman Grill. And the original Pancho’s is now Delma’s Diner, which offers breakfast and what they term traditional diner fare along with Mexican and Italian specialties. There’s also a La Fiesta (formerly Pancho’s) in Clifton Park, and a Pancho’s in Troy, but they seem to be independently owned. New name notwithstanding, La Fiesta has that Pancho’s feeling, but minus the rather disconcerting mascot painted on the wall.

The meal begins with that basket of warm chips and mini carafe of homemade salsa. Appetizer choices include flautas (deep-fried stuffed tortillas, $9), quesadillas ($8), a mixed plate of the above, with nachos and dips ($13) and, when you get past the long list of nachos options, even fajita nachos for $11. Black bean, chicken or tortilla soups are available ($3.50-$5.75 for various sizes) and there’s a choice of salads ($3.75-$9).

House specialties include variations on burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, chimichangas and fajitas, the fillings or toppings including beef, chicken, pork, seafood or vegetarian mixtures, and they’re priced from $10 to $17, the more expensive ones being seafood-centric. Other entrées include carne asada ($14), which features grilled steak with avocados and pico de gallo sauce, grill-fried tilapia ranchera ($14), camarones fundidos ($14) a cheese-covered dish of shrimp in a cream sauce, salmon and shrimp in garlic sauce ($15.45) and La Fiesta Special ($15), which is steak served with onions and mushrooms and a guacamole salad. The before-3 PM lunch specials are a good bargain: for $5 to $8, you get a scaled-down plate of a dinner item, often with rice and beans.

The new location lacks the big sunroom windows of the old one, so it’s a little darker, but the dining room has a comfortable array of booths and tables and is well separated from the more TV-intensive bar area. And, since most of the employees also made the move, it will look and feel very familiar to Pancho’s regulars.

As has long been the case, this is a restaurant that caters to an Americanized idea of what Mexican dining is about, and because the mainstream American palate is bounded by fear, the safest place is the not-too-exciting place. This is it.