La Mexicana Restaurant
WHERE: 1759 State St., Schenectady. Phone 346-1700
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week
HOW MUCH: $28.19, including $5 tip
MORE INFO: Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Discover. Not fully wheelchair-accessible
SCHENECTADY The grapevine sent me this one, a small, family-owned and -run market/restaurant on State Street in Schenectady. My source gushed: “La Mexicana is a very authentic neighborhood Mexican joint. It’s a taqueria with a few special plates that go beyond. Nothing more than $10. What a place!”
I collected Pam, who has lived in New Mexico and Los Angeles, and headed off to Schenectady for lunch. We parked in one of the few spaces in front of the small gray building, with a market on the right and a dining room with separate entrance on the left.
If you go in through the market, you’ll be distracted and intrigued by the tidy shelves of Mexican provisions and household products. I saw long lengths of sugar cane and some mangos over by a small shopping cart filled with packets of spices. Some of them were familiar, like the cloves, whose smell carried over the rest, but most eluded me. Pam was impressed by the wide range of Goya products.
I bought a small bottle of Goya vanilla. Mom is a Mexican vanilla convert, and while I trust the Madagascar-sourced product for butter-heavy baked goods, at least I’ll give it a try.
Eventually we found our way into the dining room, where two small, well-behaved boys were being highly entertained by SpongeBob on the television. There are six tile-topped tables with padded banquet chairs, and a jukebox as big as a Mini Cooper, but with more lights. It’s a modest space, painted lime green and festooned with paper party decorations and some striped blankets. The menu is a small whiteboard that shares a wall with a very large plastic lizard.
We’d picked up slender bottles from the cooler in the market, where there was a wide range of juice-based drinks and sodas, most of them delightfully unfamiliar. I grabbed a mandarin orange Jarritos soda; Pam was pleased to find Coke made with sugar, not corn syrup. Mine was, too, and I can tell you this: Soda with sugar is very, very sweet.
Standing, we gave our orders to the server in front of the board as he answered our questions and jotted on a paper pad. Nothing was more than $10. You can get a taco for $2; there are burritos and quesadillas, and mixed combos are $9.99.
We amused ourselves by watching State Street and sneaking peeks at SpongeBob until the server came and fired up the jukebox, which played jaunty, lively, bouncy Mexican music. Our food arrived in good time, with big plates for us both. Pam almost visibly drooled over the carne asada, thin planks of marinated steak. The combo plate consisted of refried beans, tasty seasoned rice with corn, and an iceberg lettuce salad. A foil packet held several warm flour tortillas.
There were two squirt bottles on the table. “That’s the spicy stuff,” said Pam, pointing to the bottle that held the orange-colored sauce. “The other is salsa verde.” We unwrapped our cutlery from the napkin and got to work.
Starting with taco
I started with the taco. “That’s how it should be served,” said Pam, noting the open flour tortilla and seasoned pieces of pork with chopped onion and cilantro (carnitas). I squirted on some spice and rolled the meat mixture in a warm tortilla. It was very good, and the sauce was more spicy than hot, I was pleased to find. There were delicious pieces of crispy pork fat — La Mexicana gets big bonus points for flavor.
I turned my attention to the massive quesadilla pollo. What a deal this is at $5.95: a giant, warm, comfort-food-filled tortilla with a good-sized salad on the side. I squeezed fresh lime on my shredded lettuce and ate contentedly. The bite-sized chunks of chicken were seasoned and moist, and held comfortably within the tortilla by queso blanco, mild white cheese — so white that I mistook it for sour cream at first. It was delicious. I took home two-thirds of it.
“I’d cook the meat two minutes on one side, one minute on the other,” said Pam, examining the beef. She shoveled beans (“Not greasy”) and rice and slices of meat onto a warm tortilla and wrapped it up and happily repeated this exercise until she was full, while she talked of plans to come back with friends.
I talked her into dessert, and from what we could tell, there was rice pudding, flan and cake with three leches, or kinds of milk: condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream. We split a slice of cake. This dessert is as good as it looks, a vanilla spongecake with white topping, garnished with a slice of sweet kiwi and topped with chocolate sauce and whipped cream.
Tres leches is a very light cake. Because of the air bubbles in the sponge, it doesn’t get soggy like you’d expect. In fact, it looked like plain spongecake until I took a bite and realized it was soaked in sweet liquid. We swooned. It’s rich and wonderful, a fresh homemade cake that you shouldn’t miss. Come to think of it, you shouldn’t miss anything else here, either.
Two other folks joined us in the dining room, but otherwise La Mexicana feels undiscovered. The price is excellent, and the people are nice and cook all the food right there themselves. I’ve got two people telling me it’s authentic Mexican; clearly it’s fresher and healthier than Mexican fast food. So go now before it gets too crowded.