LA FIESTA MEXICAN GRILL
2901 Curry Ford Road | 407-985-4340 | facebook.com/lafiestagrillandcatering | $$
For seven years in a row, readers have voted Garibaldi on Semoran Boulevard the best local Mexican restaurant in our Best of Orlando poll. People love the large portions, friendly staff, accessible dishes, moderate prices and colorful atmosphere. Well, we’re here to tell you that Garibaldi, beloved as it is, may have some new competition on all of those fronts.
La Fiesta Mexican Grill is yet another entry in the Curry Ford/Conway area’s pleasing profusion of mom-and-pop restaurants. (What is it that makes this neighborhood mostly immune to chain eateries? Whatever it is, we like it.) La Fiesta moved from Longwood, where it had a loyal clientele, to a tiny building on Curry Ford Road last year – then, once it had caught on in the new neighborhood, moved across the street to a larger space where they could get a beer and wine license. You’ll find the usual suspects in the beer selection – basic American and Mexican choices in bottles or on draft – but steer clear of the sangria unless you have a serious sweet tooth. One of my dining companions described it as tasting like a “fruit cup.”
On a recent rainy night, the cheery yellow walls and rock en español soundtrack warmed up the room – it’s larger than the old space, but still cozy, with about 14 tables and a small bar (the booths feature colorful Mexican tilework).
At most Mexican restaurants, the menu boils down to a multitude of different combinations of a few familiar items and ingredients, and La Fiesta’s (vast) menu is no different. We found enchiladas, burritos, tacos and tamales galore in various à la carte and combo configurations, along with a few American-Mexican sops (chimichangas, flautas, jalapeño poppers) and a few more intriguingly authentic options (lengua, carnitas, whole red snapper). Baskets of chips and carafes of a pulp-thick house-made tomato salsa appeared on the table as we started trying to narrow it down.
To start we added some guacamole ($5.99) to accompany those chips – clearly made in-house with fresh avocados, bright-green and chunky but puzzlingly lacking in salt, lime or onion. The shrimp empanadas we ordered ($6.99), on the other hand, were perfectly seasoned. The dough (bought in from a Miami company, according to the owner on one of his many eagle-eyed laps around the dining room) was fried to a golden crumbly crisp, but the filling, teeming with small whole shrimp, was made fresh and tasted it.
That homemade taste was the hallmark of our meal, in fact. The bisteck Tampiqueña ($16.99) was butterflied, pounded flat to tenderize and pan-fried – not a showy piece of meat, but perfectly cooked through, juicy and savory. Camarones a la mojo de ajo was a tumble of fresh, plump shrimp, simply sautéed in garlicky oil and perfectly toothsome.
Mild enchiladas (we tried both cheese, $9.49, and chicken in verde sauce, $9.99) had the same homestyle comfort factor. “It feels like a sock on my insides,” said the person nibbling his way through the cheese ones. Both had a nice tang from a topping of queso fresco, but those who prefer thrill to comfort on the plate may want to add a bit of blazing-hot yellow habañero sauce. (Just ask your server for a variety of hot sauces.)
Carnitas ($11.99), a heap of chewy, salty pork shards, possessed the magical mix of fatty bits and crisp-burnt bits – so salty it made my lips tingle, but easily tamed with a slather of the accompanying sour cream, guacamole and creamy refried beans.
On a lunch visit, I tried La Fiesta’s chilaquiles ($8.99) – they’re not offered at dinnertime, and it’s a shame. A respectably sharp punch of onion and tomatillo cuts through the lush oily stir-fry of corn chips and tender pulled chicken, topped with a sprinkle of cotija and a perfect fried egg (whites set and just lacy at the edges, yolk warm and runny).
If I had to quibble, I could say that our food didn’t come out with the kind of speed that chain restaurants have led some diners to expect. But that’s the thing about home cooking – it takes as long as it takes, and you’re glad that the kitchen took their time once it’s in front of you.