La Paloma Offers Variations on Its Theme

David Nelson regularly reviews restaurants for The Times in San Diego. His column also appears in Calendar on Fridays.

The Mexican-style menu at Vista's La Paloma stays fairly close to tradition, but does charge off on its own frequently enough to demonstrate that even this seemingly unsusceptible-to-change cooking style can be varied at times, and with success.

Black beans, not too popular in Mexico outside Yucatan (a fact nearly irrelevant in Southern California, where the overwhelmingly dominant Mexican culinary influence is from the northern province of Sonora) occupy a prominent role on this menu. La Paloma even identifies them specifically as Cuban (and notes for the health-minded that they are prepared with vegetable oil rather than lard).

There also are two featured barbecued items, again not at all Mexican but quite successfully prepared. Served with traditional Mexican garnishes, their presence gives the menu a pleasing breadth.

The very big deal on this menu, at least according to the restaurant, is the entree of shrimp and lobster fajitas, dutifully noted as a recipe created by La Paloma and one so dandy as to have been featured in Gourmet . The printed description in the magazine specifies olive oil, bell peppers, onions and spices as cooking element and flavorings for the shellfish.

The flavors are savory and agreeable, and the vegetables in the garnish tangy and good, but the chunks of lobster--as impressively hefty as they may have been--were tough, and the shrimp shriveled and dry. The lesson of this is that however energetically you may season, it still is necessary to pay close attention to the cooking of the dish. Red cabbage cups filled separately with black beans, smooth guacamole and a refreshing, mild salsa cruda filled a separate garnish plate. The plate did arrive sizzling, a point in La Paloma's favor, since many San Diego County restaurants seem to have an utter horror of serving food at any temperature higher than tepid.

Smoking-hot food evidently is the general rule, since an order of "Efrain's chicken" similarly arrived in a nearly incandescent state. The name of the dish refers to Efrain, who has been head cook at La Paloma for some years and who invented a barbecue sauce with Mexican overtones that is tangy, sweet, somewhat hot and utterly delicious. This is liberally spooned over a thigh-breast portion of chicken that has been oven-roasted to a beautifully tender state, proving that the kitchen does know how to produce tender, succulent food when it wants to, despite the contrary evidence of the lobster fajitas. In this case, soft, smooth frijoles refritos (blanketed with molten cheese) rather than black beans accompany the serving, along with a foothill-sized mound of so-so Mexican rice and a basket of hot tortillas. The same sauce is used on the similarly garnished "Pancho Villa's ribs," or baby back pork ribs.

All entrees include a cup of the excellent albondigas soup, a thick, well-seasoned broth packed with carrots, celery, leafy greens and, depending on the luck of the ladle, one or more flavorful meatballs. Optional starters include such offerings as black bean nachos; a more traditionally Mexican-style dish of nachos enriched with shredded chicken or beef; ceviche, and the "pizza mexicana ," a flour tortilla piled with ground beef, peppers, tomatoes, chilies and two kinds of cheese, heated long enough to make the cheese run in rivulets over the other toppings.

Although La Paloma seems to focus on the more formal entrees, there is a sufficient selection of antojitos -style dishes, including the usual tostadas, burritos, enchiladas, pork tamales and chiles rellenos . But formal entrees do seem the main thrust; the list kicks off with a one-pound Porterhouse topped with garlic, onions and mushrooms, and goes one to beef and chicken fajitas, shrimp sauteed with mushrooms, carne asada tacos and the enchilada del mar , which bakes shrimp and cheese inside corn tortilla wrappers. Among interesting-sounding house creations are the "chicken cilantro," a sliced breast sauteed with cilantro, garlic and lemon, and the "zesty" pork in green chile sauce, about which the menu warns diners not to complain if they find it too hot.

La Paloma

116 Escondido Ave., Vista

Calls: 758-7140

Hours: Lunch weekdays, dinner nightly

Cost: Entrees $8.95 to $13.95; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $30 to $50

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