As winter and the rainy season approach, some Central Coast residents may find their thoughts drifting south of the border.
Golden sand. Sun-kissed surf. Frosty margaritas. It’s enough to make anyone head "down Mexico way."
But before travelers dig out their swim trunks, there’s a new restaurant hoping to bring locals an authentic taste of Mexico.
La Palapa Restaurant takes its name from the palm-frond umbrellas and roofs that rim Mexican beaches. It’s the newest addition to San Luis Obispo’s Marigold shopping center, several doors down from Taco Bell.
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"We wanted to do something different," said owner Litzy Aviles, whose family hails from south Mexico City. "We wanted to bring a piece of Mexico to California."
According to Aviles, La Palapa is a family affair. Her mother makes homemade tortillas and cooks, two brothers supervise the kitchen, and her sister helps man the front counter.
My boyfriend Chris and I stopped by the restaurant for dinner about three weeks after it opened.
A bright interior
La Palapa takes the place of Schlotzsky’s Deli, so it’s surprising to see how well the Mexican eatery fits in a building previously occupied by a sandwich shop.
Warm brick walls blend with colorful sombreros, clay pots and Mexican blankets. Murals and black-and-white pictures portray peaceful scenes: tropical birds by a waterfall; a shawl-wearing woman walking down the streets of a Mexican village.
My eye was drawn to the red-orange wooden chairs imported from Tijuana, their high backs painted with folk art scenes like a smiling, mustachioed man wearing a dapper neckerchief.
Rather than sit on the cute but chilly patio, we settled into two reddish leather chairs and quickly received a warm batch of thin tortilla chips and chunky homemade salsa. Our drinks arrived in Mason jars.
But how’s the food?
After glancing over cheery paper placemats reminiscent of a tourist getaway, we ordered two traditional meals served with soup or salad.
Chris started with a warm cup of albondigas soup, featuring mildly spicy meatballs in a tomato-based broth. Before adding a squeeze of lime he said the meatballs reminded him of Chef Boyardee, and he would have liked the soup to have had more kick.
My salad was a pleasant blend of greens, sliced mushrooms, diced red and green peppers, carrots and shredded cheese. It seemed a bit out of place in a Mexican restaurant — much like the hamburger I spotted on the menu.
Unfortunately, our appetizer — Mexican quesadillas ($9) made with fried corn tortillas, queso fresco, beans and potatoes — arrived just seconds before our entrees. What little we sampled of the plate was warm, hearty and satisfying.
Chris eagerly dug into his massive main dish ($16): carne asada and a moist grilled chicken breast served with rice. A tangy peanut sauce complemented both meats.
My vegetarian enchiladas ($12) came out late because of a kitchen mix-up. Covered with carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and zucchini, the cheese-and-sauce smothered enchiladas featured just as many veggies inside, as well as rice and refried beans.
I found the enchiladas nicely spicy and filling, and had enough left over for lunch the next day.
Our friends Jack and Cindy, who also dined at La Palapa recently, sampled the chile verde tostada and a taco salad topped with chicken (both $10). They liked the fresh salsa and the folksy décor but said their dinner fell short of expectations.
Jack, a fan of spicy food, found his chile verde pork bland and a little overpriced. Cindy agreed that the prices seemed steep.
If La Palapa Restaurant is a piece of Mexico, it’s most reminiscent of a café on the main tourist drag: pleasant but a tad spendy and bland.
Although La Palapa’s staff is friendly — every waitress called me "sweetie" — the service itself was uneven. Chips and salsa, soup and salad arrived on time but we had to wait much longer for our appetizer and my entrée.
Still, La Palapa has an impressively thick menu, devoting an entire page to shrimp and seafood dishes.
We were also tempted by a number of steak, chicken and vegetarian choices, which seemed to explore the breadth of Mexican cuisine.
We got the sense that Aviles and her staff are still settling into their new roles. We’ll be waiting to see whether La Palapa pulls together enough to lure back hungry travelers.
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.
3820 Broad St., San Luis Obispo
The scene: Folksy decor with an Old Mexican flair
The cuisine: Extensive authentic fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner
Plan to spend: $7 to $16 for appetizers; $9 to $18 for entrees
Hours: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily