By Chris Klint
Channel 2 News
6:34 PM AKST, February 10, 2012
Vallartas Mexican Restaurant
$8-$15 per plate
5437 Northern Lights Blvd. #7
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 8 p.m. Sunday
http://www.vallartasak.com (under construction)
There are many Anchorage institutions that serve Mexican food, names well-known to the local diner: Gallo’s, La Mex and Taco King, to list just a few. Beyond those small chains, though, there’s also a rich selection of smaller places around town that aren’t household names but offer many variations on standards of the cuisine.
Vallartas Mexican Restaurant drew my eye because of its relatively secluded location, hidden in a strip mall on the corner of Boniface Parkway and Northern Lights Boulevard, as well as the fact that my friend Everett lives nearby. We were passing the restaurant one cold but sunny Saturday and decided to stop in for a visit, on his recommendation and my curiosity.
Once you step inside, Vallartas quickly recovers much of the charm it loses at first glance due to its impersonal facade. A surprisingly large number of windows let in enough light to peel back some of the darkness that pervades an Alaskan winter, with a variety of tasteful Mexicana hanging on the walls. The place was deserted when we arrived, but a waiter recognized Everett on sight and quickly seated us at a booth.
The lunch menu is a compact selection of items from Vallartas’ larger dinner menu of Mexican items, offered at a discount alongside a quite reasonable lunch buffet -- with drinks included -- served from Sunday through Friday ($11.95 on Sunday, $9.95 on weekdays). Having visited on the one day of the week when the buffet wasn’t offered, I perused the menu and chose a simple staple with which to test the kitchen: a plate of two fajita tacos ($10.95), one each made with flank steak and chicken breast. Everett, a Vallartas veteran, went to the American portion of the menu and ordered a Millennium Burger ($10.95).
While we waited for our food, Everett and I chowed down on a common free appetizer served at Mexican restaurants, a basket of tortilla chips and salsa served with cups of hot and mild salsa. Both the chips and the salsa were fresh and freely replaced (many restaurants charge for baskets beyond the first), but became even more memorable when the waiter told Everett, “I’ve got something hotter in the kitchen.” We asked to try it and were provided with a small portion of Vallartas’ own chipotle sauce, a deceptively mild-smelling garnish. I tried a small portion with one tortilla chip; it began with a sweet note on the tongue, but became a slowly intensifying burn that didn’t stop until I took a long pull of root beer from my glass.
The food didn’t take long to show up, perhaps 20 minutes from order to service, and we dug right into it. My fajita tacos were nicely spiced, with the mix of meats providing a good balance to the plate: the chicken was a subtler item but much more wetly prepared, while the steak was worth chewing a little longer to bring out its marinated flavors. Both were accompanied by a large helping of onions and peppers sautéed with the meat, as well as the double portion of simple but delicious Spanish rice I’d opted for in lieu of beans.
Everett was slightly less impressed with his Millennium Burger, a bacon mushroom cheeseburger made with Swiss cheese and topped with sliced avocado as well as lettuce, tomato and pickles. It wasn’t the ingredients themselves, he said, so much as the way they didn’t quite fit together; the avocado added something to the burger, but it seemed out of place with the more common toppings piled onto the large patty. The fries served with the burger were quite standard, but he didn’t have any praise or demerits for them after he’d polished off the burger.
Everett and I were quickly on our way, refueled for an afternoon of shopping and recreational errands, but Vallartas has stayed in my mind beyond the duration of my visit. It might never become a local empire with several addresses listed in the phone book, but Everett’s suggestion marks it as a restaurant with the kind of nearby notoriety fed by neighbors in the know coming back for more. While I may not be one of those neighbors, the next time I’m in East Anchorage I look forward to visiting that buffet and becoming acquainted with a broader swath of what looks like a promising menu.
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