Mariachis Make the Meal at Plaza Garibaldi

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

During the week, Plaza Garibaldi is like many another Mexican restaurant in Orange County, serving standard dishes like carne asada, carnitas and combination plates (enchiladas, chile rellenos, tacos) without much fanfare. But on weekends, the mariachis begin to play, and this large restaurant turns into a different place.

Named after the Mexico City square where mariachis provide a festive soundtrack, Plaza Garibaldi has been the county's premiere mariachi dinner theater for seven years. Since moving to Anaheim in August, it has added a dash more fun for the hundreds who pack its colorful main room.

When I heard about the shows, I couldn't wait to go, but I wasn't expecting a good meal. At most dinner theaters, the food is secondary.

So when my wife and I took some friends to Plaza Garibaldi one recent Saturday night, I was suspicious after we were quickly served gimmicky red, white and green tortilla chips.

We'd come half an hour before the 7:30 p.m. show, just as the 325-seat room started to fill. For the shows, Plaza Garibaldi offers a limited entree menu and platter dishes large enough for groups to share. The entrees offer no surprises--carne asada, carnitas, fajitas and three types of shrimp dishes. There was also a special of chicken in mole poblano.

The carne asada was generously topped with grilled onions and mild peppers, but the meat, which had a pleasing flavor of fresh herbs, was a bit chewy. The "savory herb sauce" on the pollo Santa Cecilia was bland. Nothing special about these two.

But the camarones al mojo de ajo completely changed my opinion. A strong garlicky flavor pumped up the taste of the plump, buttery shrimp, and I ate them greedily. My only disappointment was that there were only five. They came with light, fluffy rice dusted with spices. Overall, this was one of the better Mexican shrimp dishes I've had.

The carnitas Uruapan was even better. The slightly fatty pork was crisp on the edges but fork tender. . The plate also included fresh guacamole, pico de gallo, onions, cilantro and refried beans. It was easily the finest of Plaza Garibaldi's entree dishes.

As we were finishing our dinners, the evening's entertainment began. Ninos de Garibaldi, a ballet folklorico of teenagers dressed in elaborate traditional costumes, danced to recorded music.

They were soon joined by the house band, Mariachi Garibaldi, featuring six violins, two trumpets, two guitars and 10 strong voices, which serenaded the audience with standard mariachi tunes.

This group had a good old time, hamming it up with the crowd and enthusiastically encouraging them to clap with the music.

The show continued with the loopy dancing of "Ernesto the crazy waiter" (yes, he's really a waiter at Plaza Garibaldi) and a roping exhibition.

Then the dancers and musicians returned for one final flourish, and we left just in time to see the nearby Disneyland fireworks show as we drove home. Mariachi is merely a weekend activity at Plaza Garibaldi--which is a restaurant first, explaining the good quality of their show entrees. All those dishes are also on the larger regular dinner menu.

An employee told me Plaza Garibaldi serves "country style" Mexican food, which I took to mean the basics of the cuisine. It does include hearty albondigas and cocido soups and a steak picado sauteed with peppers, onions and tomatoes.

But the menu is also packed with the sort of Mexican dishes everybody knows: quesadillas, monster burritos, fajitas and combination platters with rice, beans and melted cheese.

The atmosphere is quite different on a weekday night. There are fewer customers, and they tend to sit in the bar area. Instead of mariachi music, Channel 9 news blares from a TV monitor. Service is relatively slow.

We started a meal with fresh guacamole, whose chunks of avocado mixed with zesty onion and cilantro. I followed that with a chile verde burrito, which was basically the classic dish--pork with green sauce--shoved into large flour tortilla. The sauce was sweet and tangy and the pork tender, but the refried beans on the side were bland. I ordered the burrito wet, covered with extra salsa verde and melted cheese, which improved the beans.

Other dishes offered mixed results. The shrimp fajitas were a visual treat: a sizzling plate of juicy grilled shrimp piled with sliced tomatoes, onions and peppers. The guacamole and pico de gallo on the side were fresh and tasty.

A chicken taco packed a fine soft corn tortilla with savory chunks of marinated chicken. On the other hand, a cheese enchilada was oily and suffered from an insufficient amount of Sonoran red chile sauce.

Plaza Garibaldi's ultimate allure is its festive mariachi show, a can't-miss attraction for your out-of-town visitors--or for yourself, for that matter.

The few good-quality items on the show menu only add to the overall good time, even if crazy Ernesto happens to be your waiter.

Plaza Garibaldi's prices: Appetizers, soups and salads range from $1.95 to $10.95, entrees from $3.25 to $13.25 and platter dishes from $25 to $40. Mariachi show prices range from $16.95 to $19.95 for entrees and $25 to $59.95 for platters.

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* Plaza Garibaldi, 500 N. Brookhurst Ave., Anaheim. (714) 758-9014. Lunch and dinner 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Sunday; brunch Sunday.

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