Saturday, Dec 28 2013 09:00 AM

PETE TITTL: Hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant, big-time flavors

  1. 1 of 5

    By Felix Adamo/ The Californian

    Careful! This plate's hot! Serenata Mexican Grill owner Luz Mayaorga takes an order from the kitchen to a customer.

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  2. 2 of 5

    By Felix Adamo/ The Californian

    Mmmmmmm. Gorditas. From left, chile verde, chichanon and picadillo.

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  3. 3 of 5

    By Felix Adamo/ The Californian

    Decisions, decisions. It's Tacos Alambre and it's your choice where to begin; steak, chorizo, or ham!

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  4. 4 of 5

    By Felix Adamo/ The Californian

    Serenata Mexican Grill owner Luz Mayorga is all smiles after Michael Severini said how much he loved his lunch!

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  5. 5 of 5

    By Felix Adamo/ The Californian

    Even though packed at lunch, the service at Serenata Mexican Grill was quick as usual!

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By PETE TITTL, Contributing columnist

There's a real thrill to discovering a restaurant that no one else knows about. A low-profile hole-in-the-wall that is usually inexpensive and the definition of humble. If you're passionate about food, you can't wait to tell friends, who you're sure will dig the place as much as you do.

That's what we thought when we first visited Serenata, a tiny new Mexican restaurant located near the Auto Mall that is the definition of small. Legal capacity is 31, says the sign on the wall. Six tables. Five stools at a bar in the back that seems a bit cramped. Finding an Arizona Cafe-humble Mexican restaurant is a bit easier on the east side, but here we are in the southwest, right near the freeway and all those expensive autos.

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3401 Pacheco Road


Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Breakfast, $5.25 to $7.95; appetizers, $7.95 to $14.95; soup and salad, $8.95 to $12.50; burritos, $6 to $9.95; tortas, $7.50; gorditas, $2.50; tostadas, $3.50 to $4.50; specialties, $7.95 to $10.95; combo plates, $7.95 to $10.95; child's plate, $5.50.

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

Dress: Casual

Amenities: Wheelchair accessible; beer and wine served; many vegetarian options.

Food: ***1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Service: **1/2

Value: **1/2

It had the kind of food that, on first impression, found us making excuses such as, "Maybe I'm just really hungry, but... this is so good" -- one of my companion's favorite lines.

On our first visit I ordered the tacos gringos ($11.95), probably because I am a gringo, while my companion selected something simple, the chili verde burrito ($9.95). Both were excellent and included moist rice and wonderful refried beans.

My soft tacos, made with flour tortillas, were stuffed with juicy carne asada bits, lots of sizable chunks of fresh cotija cheese, lettuce and a slice of fresh avocado. The cheese adds mostly a creamy presence, but it was so in abundance that it was almost like eating a quesadilla. The fresh avocado added to that impression. But, with the beef, the whole thing worked well (chicken is available as well).

My companion got one of those burritos that dwarf even what they serve at Chipotle, with beans and meat inside and more tart green sauce on the outside. It had the slow-cooked stew character of a great chili verde.

I know I'll be back getting that for her on work nights. She turned half of it into lunch the next day, though her willpower was tested while waiting for the to-go box. Pick, pick, pick with the fork. I know you've had entrees like that before.

When we returned for a second visit, I ordered the camarones verde ($12.95), and my companion selected another one of the specialties, a carnitas plate ($11.95). The carnitas were fantastic, not greasy in the least but still flavorful, cut into chunks mixed with small morsels of pork. I'd order that again.

There must've been a mix-up in the kitchen because I was served the camarones Blanca, not the verde, and received seven medium shrimp cooked in butter with tomatoes, onions and green pepper strips.

After getting my mind ready for a nice green sauce mixed with shrimp, it was disappointing, but the quality of the shrimp wasn't up to the other fare we sampled either.

There were six beers on tap, including Modelo, but the bar doesn't seem to draw customers, even though the price for a Mondo was only $4. The house wines are on a Gallo-Sutter Home level, though only $4.50 a glass.

Service was pleasant, other than the snafu with my order. Though crowds are light right now, go before anyone else finds it.

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