A La Fiesta of flavors at new Mexican restaurant in northwest Wichita

02/22/2012 5:00 AM

02/22/2012 2:32 PM

Some friends who grew up in Wellington were excited when they learned that La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant would open in the former La Mesa spot at 6960 W. 21st St. It’s fabulous, they told me. Some of the best Mexican food around.

I was skeptical. Having grown up in a small town, I realize that the one Mexican restaurant in your little town often becomes the best Mexican restaurant in your mind, regardless of how good it actually is. (Although I’m still fairly certain that Dodge City’s El Charro is the best.)

But I’m happy to report that my friends were right. La Fiesta isn’t life-changing Mexican fare, and it’s not dramatically different from what’s served at other local Tex-Mexerias such as Playa Azul. But what we tried was good.

The restaurant, which opened in late November (and is not to be confused with the La Fiesta on South Broadway,) is owned by brothers Juan and Jose Ayala and Jose’s wife, Griselda Hernandez. In addition to the Wellington and Wichita restaurants, the family also has La Fiestas in Arkansas City and in Dewey and Bartlesville, Okla.

ON THE MENU: What’s not on the menu? La Fiesta’s is an overwhelming multi-page monster, filled with all styles of pollo, camarones, steak dishes and fajitas. It also offers an unending list of tacos, burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, chalupas, chimichanga, rellenos and combinations thereof. And La Fiesta has a lunch menu and offers a $7.25-a-person lunch buffet from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays.

DON’T MISS DISHES: The morning after I visited La Fiesta, my scale read two pounds more than it had the morning before. I think the main culprit possibly was the queso fundido ($6.25) from the appetizer list. It arrived at the table sizzling and smoking, a dramatic trick that unfortunately choked both us and our waiter as we breathed in wafting jalapeno steam. Once it simmered down, though, the dip was an amazing (if not fat-laden) treat, consisting of melty Jack cheese, grilled chorizo, pico and jalapenos. We scooped it all up with La Fiesta’s complimentary thin-and-crispy tortilla chips.

The pre-meal pigout did not stop us from attacking an order of La Fiesta’s fabulous carnitas tacos ($8.49). A dinner order consisted of three individually wrapped tacos that featured crispy-on-the-outside, fall-apart-tender-on-the-inside chunks of pork stuffed into grilled flour tortillas. They came with a side of fresh and vibrant pico, which made the tacos even more delicious. The only thing that would have improved them would have been a side of guacamole. The dinner also came with underseasoned refried beans and passable Mexican rice.

We asked our waiter for a recommendation on dinner, but his selection actually was our least favorite of the dishes we sampled. The El Puerto Special ($13.99) featured a pounded-flat and grilled chicken breast, a piece of rib eye steak and grilled shrimp served with rice, beans, tortillas and a tiny dollop of guacamole. The chicken was dry, and the steak was a little chewy. The shrimp was fine, but there was nothing special about the dish, and we wish we’d saved more room for carnitas tacos and flaming fundido.

At our Wellington friend’s insistence, we also ordered a combo dinner (No. 11, $7.99) that included a burrito, enchilada and taco. His recommendation: Ask the kitchen to add La Fiesta’s white queso sauce and extra red enchilada sauce to both the burrito and enchilada. He was right. The enchilada was in a corn tortilla with a fresh corny flavor, and both it and the burrito were filled with a nicely seasoned ground beef. The taco was fine but couldn’t compete with the other two components.

AMBIENCE: La Fiesta looks exactly like La Mesa did, including a large dining room filled with typical carved and brightly painted booths, chairs and tables. One problem: I clearly remember that La Mesa had an issue with a sewer odor in the lobby where customers enter the building. Although the building has been vacant since La Mesa closed in 2009, that aroma is still distinctly present, though we couldn’t smell it as much when we were seated in the dining room.

PRICE RANGE: Reasonable. Entrees range from around $7 to $13. Combo dinners are $7.99.

SERVICE: Good. Our server was friendly and kept up with us despite a crowded dining room.

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