Happy hour is every day from 4 to 8 p.m. (Photo: Staff)

This week, Monica and I visited one of our favorite Mexican restaurants near downtown, the wonderful La Altena at 316 W. Main St. Although there are several locations throughout the city, this particular La Altena location has always been among the top contenders for reliability and quality. You know what you’re getting and it’s always good.

The only other La Altena I’ve visited—other locations are in East Brainerd, Cleveland and Mountain Creek Road—is next to the laundromat near the apartments on Mountain Creek Road. I prefer the Main Street location, but I would visit any La Altena in a heartbeat if I’m near one and hungry. 

I picked Monica up from work, and we drove to lunch. After a month of strict dieting, I was more than ready to eat something I shouldn’t. Of all the cravings I dealt with—alcohol, gummy bears, peanut butter—the most intense had, oddly, been tortilla chips. My addiction to Mojo Burrito chips is a problem. La Altena chips are not the best, but all I could think about as we parked the car was stuffing my face full of them. That’s an image, right? A full-grown adult jamming handfuls of chips into his mouth while staring into the middle distance, his girlfriend screaming, “Why? Why you do this, baby?” but he never stops …. 

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Atmosphere/service
La Altena is located on the same block as The Urban Lawn event space and connected to, though not directly affiliated with, Carniceria Loa No. 7, a Latino grocery/restaurant. La Altena’s interior is an example of how a tiny operation can serve people quickly and efficiently in a tight space. The kitchen is located right up front, and I’ve never had to wait more than two or three minutes to get a seat. You WILL smell like taco meat for the rest of the day. People will smell the sillage as you pass by and ask you what you’re wearing. You can turn up your nose and tell them “eau de Altena taco grease,” or you could apologize for smelling like a grease ball. I find the scent to be seductive. Monica is neutral about it. 

The staff makes this La Altena location. It appears that the same people are working every time I visit—I know “beard guy,” “wild guy” and “nice lady”—but I’ve never caught names. We never have to ask for more chips, and the food is delivered to the table with expediency. I sometimes think I don’t have enough time to eat a proper lunch in only 45 minutes, but lo and behold, I’ve got time to spare by the end of the meal. Perhaps I could whistle a tune or read a novella in my spare time. 

A pile of carnitas at La Altena is a thing of beauty. (Photo: Staff)

The food
We arrived at the end of the lunch rush and were seated in a booth in the back of the restaurant. The menu offers a variety of standard Mexican fare and a few surprises, such as authentic chicken mole and “new Mexican” dishes like steak à la tampiqueña (a 12-ounce rib-eye with peppers). My standard go-to dishes depend on the time of day. I’m a sucker for a cheap margarita, but maybe not before I go back to work. Likewise, I love the mojado burrito—steak and Mexican sausage—but my stomach does not, unless I’m having “a night” and plan to drink several beers. The mojado is a guaranteed heartburn situation, and, honestly, a burrito is just too much food for lunch.

The chips and salsa were placed in front of me and I sampled my first in months. They were just OK. I was a little disappointed with how this chip didn’t satisfy my expectations craving. How weird that the thing I wanted so badly wasn’t actually very satisfying once I had it. There is a lesson in that, probably. 

Following a moment of existential crisis, Monica and I ordered. She went with the mixed fajitas—chicken, steak and shrimp—and I ordered the simple carnitas with three flour tortillas, my favorite La Altena plate. I have tried to replicate this style of pork carnitas at home to no avail. I believe the secret is the addition of Coca-Cola into the cooking process. Whatever it is they do, I enjoy it.

After months of not having chips, the cravings were intense. (Photo: Staff)

Not surprisingly, our plates arrived in a flash. Monica’s fajitas were steaming and sizzling, and my carnitas were plentiful. Our plates were large for two people at lunch, and both of us were up for the challenge. Monica said her fajitas were great. It’s not hard to enjoy a skillet of meat. As always, my carnitas were somewhat fatty (a good thing) and the flavor was that deep, rich, salty pork that I dream about. Both plates are served with either flour or corn tortillas. I made several “tacos” from the plate, but honestly, the meat is good enough on its own to just fork into my mouth. Monica and I were satisfied. 

Would we go back?
La Altena is such a ubiquitous restaurant for me that I was surprised to find I hadn’t written about it yet for my Date Night Dining series. Although the Main Street location is my “home base” La Altena, the other locations offer almost-identical menus and experience. If you’re looking for a cheap margarita and a plate of high-quality Mexican food, look no further than La Altena. It’s exactly what you would expect of such a place.

The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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