Saturday, Apr 06 2013 08:30 AM

PETE TITTL: They aim to please, and hit the mark

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Lunchtime diners eat and/or make their selections at La Mina Cantina on District Boulevard.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    La Mina Cantina bartender Emmanuel Bojorquez starts a margarita beneath a colorful painting.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    The Santa Barbara Chicken at La Mina Cantina on District Boulevard.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Camaones en Zarape at La Mina Cantina on District Boulevard.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    La Mina Cantina server Lupita Vasquez with Arturo's "Mucho Grande" burrito.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Grilled Chicken and Poblano Tips at La Mina Cantina.

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By PETE TITTL, Contributing columnist

I had figured that with other La Mina restaurants in town, including the always-busy Rosedale location, that the new restaurant at the corner of Gosford and District Boulevard in the southwest would not be packed.

Major miscalculation on my part.

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8020 District Blvd.


Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Sunday brunch 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Reservations recommended.

Prices: Appetizers, $4.95 to $16.95; soup, $3.95 to $7.99; salad, $11.25 to $12.95; carne entrees, $12.25 to $16.99; enchiladas, $11.75 to $13.99; chicken, $11.95 to $14.25; tortas, $10.95 to $11.95; seafood, $10.95 to $16.99; combo dinners, $10.29 to $12.99; burritos wraps and chimis, $10.99 to $14.25; specialties, $11.85 to $16.95. Lunch, $6.95 to $7.95. "Family Grills" $49 to $69. Child's plate $4.99.

Payment: MasterCard, VISA, American Express and Discover accepted. Personal checks not accepted.

Dress: Casual

Amenities: Wheelchair accessible; full bar service; some vegetarian options.

Food: ***

Atmosphere: ***1/2

Service: ***

Value: ***

The place has instantly become a favorite. The bar itself was so packed on a recent Friday night there wasn't a seat to be had. Foolishly, we didn't make reservations. I wouldn't do that again. They told us there would be a 45-minute wait, which stretched to 90 minutes, in part because of a silverware shortage. The our party of six could see -- longingly -- the unoccupied booth where our party of six was to be served, the hostess informed us it was against restaurant policy to seat guests if the eating utensils were unavailable. This reminded me of a Sunday brunch visit to the Brimhall location, which also ran out of dining implements. Either the local chain's managers need to buy more to handle the torrid popularity of their establishments or find a different dishwasher that can keep up with the volume.

That was probably the biggest service glitch on our visit. The rest of the dining experience featured the trademark hospitality we've enjoyed at the other La Mina locations.

We asked if we could dine family style because most members of our party preferred to sample all the entrees we wanted to order. No problem. Our waiter brought out separate plates and handled the whole thing flawlessly.

At one point, a waitress handling a nearby section noticed a quizzical look on my face, prompted by something my nephew had done. She thought it was a subtle request for service and asked about it. They have great team spirit in their restaurants, an eagerness to please that always makes me feel like a guest in their house.

The building was originally a Korean restaurant before becoming Amigo's Mexican Grill & Cantina and then T-Bones Ranch House, which lasted nearly six years. The transformed interior is dominated by a striking multi-color mural of a woman on the wall that just can't be described with mere words. Everything, save for the familiar-looking booths, looks fresh and new.

While waiting in the lobby I grabbed one of those menu brochures and was enticed to order the "shrimp mignon" ($17.95) which was described as a signature plate. The 16 whole medium shrimp were wrapped in bacon and grilled, topped with butter mustard sauce and garlic herb butter, presented with white rice and sauteed vegetables. The anticipation of shrimp with those two sauces was making the wait tolerable, but, alas, when we were seated, the waiter told me that item had been eliminated from the menu.

We resisted the temptation of ordering the things we'd enjoyed at the Brimhall location, including the Santa Barbara chicken (with sauteed shrimp, artificial crab, veggies and a garlic butter sauce, $14.25). We ended up choosing other specialty dishes: the Arturo's "Mucho Grande" burrito ($12.99), the steak and poblano tips ($12.95) and the camarones en Zarape ($15.99).

All were solid. Most interesting to me were the steak and poblano tips. The flame-grilled tender beef was served with a sweet-medium hot sauce of roasted poblano peppers and caramelized onions. Based on the menu description, I was expecting it to be presented like tacos, atop three corn tortillas. Instead it came in an oval dish, with the fresh-made corn and flour tortillas presented on the side. No matter. It reminded me of a good beef stew.

I always like to order the huge burritos just to see how much is mucho in each Mexican kitchen. Here they use two king-size tortillas to create something that ends up being more than a foot long, lightly covered with green sauce and a bit of melted jack cheese. Inside you get your choice of meat and a generous amount of rice and whole pinto beans. One of my companions thought the portion of meat to other ingredients was skimpy, but I disagreed.

The jumbo shrimp was fresh-tasting, wrapped in bacon, crispy and smoky from the pork. You can just imagine how good they'd be with those sauces on the mouth-watering entree deleted from the menu.

In the complaints department, one in our party found the salsa served with the chips watery and bland, though I always enjoy the hot bean dip they serve with the chips. The server was a little slow to bring the chips and salsa after we were seated, but that was the only service faux pas beyond the delayed silverware.

By the way, they have three different "parilladas," of family grills, if you want to eat family style and don't want to wing it the way we did. Designed to serve four people and priced at $49 to $69, they include individual plates of rice and beans with a big iron skillet to share. Zacatecas is all-meat, Jalisco is meat and shrimp, Acapulco is all seafood. Definitely a great idea for a group, though our waiter said the portions for four can be a bit much.

La Mina Cantina on District Boulevard can be recommended for a fine dining experience.

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