The enchiladas de pollo verdes at Las Palmas weren't bad — far from it. It wasn't my palate they threatened; it was my finely attenuated sense of nostalgia. You see, in my younger, more penurious days, when adding sausage to a boxed mix of red beans and rice was a questionable expense, these enchiladas and a couple of beers were an end-of-week splurge, a salve for my work-wracked spirit. But really, Las Palmas' enchiladas were the best thing that could have happened to me at this three-month-old restaurant. On my first visit, I'd opened the menu solely to make sure the dish was available. On subsequent visits, I had to explore.
Las Palmas opened in October on Maplewood's main commercial strip, in the space formerly occupied by the ironic Tex-Mex joint El Scorcho. The new tenants have tweaked the décor, excising the quotation marks for a more generic Mexican-restaurant look. You enter into the shotgun-style bar, which doubles as the smoking section. (Until next year, that is, when the smoking ban goes into effect.) The dining room is a wider space, though even when it's empty, the too-loud music gives it the feel of a cramped, rollicking cantina.
This is actually the second Las Palmas. The original is located in a dingy strip mall in Woodson Terrace. (Technically, the Maplewood branch is the third; there is also a Las Palmas in Overland, though it no longer has any connection to the original.) Regular readers of this column know that I tout north county's Mexican restaurants as among the area's best, a belief I trace back to the first Las Palmas. Several years ago, before I had this gig, my wife and I became fans of the restaurant — of its margaritas (bolstered by an impressive tequila selection), of its roving solo mariachi (who once played "Hotel California" à la The Big Lebowski) and of its food.
Specifically, we became fans of the enchiladas de pollo verdes: corn tortillas stuffed with chicken and chopped onion and poblano pepper and then topped with a creamy, tangy blend of melted Chihuahua cheese and tomatillo salsa. I don't want to overstate: These enchiladas weren't a revelation. They were simply very good, a step above in quality and presentation what you find at most of the area's many other — and, frankly, interchangeable — Mexican restaurants.
So when I learned that Las Palmas would be opening in Maplewood, I was excited. Here would be an opportunity to celebrate, in my role as restaurant critic, this dish I loved....
As I said, these enchiladas weren't bad. The elements of the dish I loved were there, but the sauce didn't have the spark you expect from tomatillo. The chicken inside the tortillas was similarly insipid, lacking the strong flavor of onion or poblano. Maybe it was an off day in the kitchen. Or maybe nostalgia had elevated the enchiladas from the original Las Palmas.
(To make sure, I paused the writing of this column at this exact point and drove to the Woodson Terrace location for lunch. The enchiladas were excellent.)
Whatever the reason, I knew I couldn't bank on the enchiladas de pollo verdes at the new Las Palmas. This might not seem like a big deal. It's only one of dozens of dishes on the lengthy menu. But that's exactly the concern that any diner faces at a restaurant like this. The menu offers so many choices that it's difficult to know where to start, let alone how to evaluate the restaurant as a whole. It's especially problematic at a Mexican restaurant, at least in St. Louis, as so many of those choices are the uninspiring usual suspects: chiles rellenos, burritos, chimichangas, various combination platters.
So on subsequent visits, I tried the same strategy that had led me to the enchiladas verdes way back when: looking through the menu for something a little different. That led me to pescado a la talla, a fillet of red snapper given a wet rub of adobo sauce and then grilled over an open flame. The kitchen did an excellent job with the grilling, browning the thin fillet and imparting the slightest crisp to its edges, without overcooking the fish. How much you like the dish will depend on your fondness for adobo sauce, a pungent (though only mildly peppery) blend of tomato, vinegar and seasonings. I thought it a good complement for the smoky flavor imparted by the grilling.
Aside from rice, the snapper was served with two shrimp stuffed with crab meat, breaded and pan-fried. These are also available as an entrée. As a crab purist, I was surprised at how well the sweet crab meat paired with the spicy, creamy diablo sauce. I don't know that I'd order these on their own, however; the shrimp were overcooked (a product of design — the shrimp butterflied and laid flat to allow for the crab meat — rather than neglect). Fish tacos were another surprise. I didn't think fried tilapia could stand up to all the condiments — chipotle mayo, guacamole and sour cream, as well as cheese and lettuce — but the lightly battered fish offered just enough flavor and texture to bring the dish together.
My favorite dish at Las Palmas was the roasted corn and tomato soup. I ordered a cup of it on a whim — almost an automatic response to the recent cold snap — and might have ordered another cup or even an entire bowl when I was done, had my entrée not arrived. The sweetness of corn dominates the dish, lightly brushed with the sharp flavor of chorizo and the gentle spice of poblano peppers. A simple, lovely soup.
Of course, I did have to sample a few of the old standbys. The carne asada brought a generous portion of thinly sliced steak, cooked medium-rare (as requested), the flavor spiked by a lime-juice marinade. Though the menu doesn't offer much in the way of taqueria fare, you can order a torta, the wonderfully overstuffed Mexican sandwich. Appropriately, I could barely hold half of my sandwich in two hands without the various toppings (avocado, onion, tomato, jalapeño) and the meat itself (pork milanesa — beaten thin, breaded and pan-fried) falling out of the bread. Carnitas, on the other hand, were a letdown, the pork neither as luscious nor as flavorful as it should be. And the cilantro rice, which is served on the side of almost every entrée, lacks much character, cilantro or otherwise.
One area where Las Palmas definitely needs to improve is service. Servers tend to disappear from the floor for extended periods of time — especially once your main courses have arrived. Based on what I've seen entering and leaving the restaurant through the bar area, many of the servers stand near the kitchen entrance, which you can't see from the main dining room, so catching their attention involves leaving your table — or resigning yourself to a wait.
If you choose the latter, I recommend biding your time by reading through the menu. Your research might well pay off with a dish that will keep you coming back.