Restaurant Reviews

The Scent of Fajitas

Back when I worked in restaurant kitchens, my husband became an expert at guessing what the specials of the night had been. All he had to do was take a whiff of my clothes. "New England clam chowder," he'd say, sniffing. "Grilled pork loin." Sniff. "Filet mignon with," sniff, "a wine reduction."

Seemed like old times, then, when I returned from a night of dining with friends at Las Fajitas in Boca Raton. "Hmm, salsa," he told me, inhaling. "Also something tangy, maybe lime juice." He added somewhat suspiciously, "And cigarette smoke."

I smelled like I had been working in a restaurant rather than dining in it because this incredibly inexpensive, 60-seat Mexican joint is hardly bigger than an industrial kitchen. Cooking odors spill into the main room, which has the boxy shape of an old Howard Johnson's. Namesake smoking fajitas vie with cigarettes to displace the limited oxygen supply as passing trains from the tracks across the street splash the fragrant salsa in its saucers and shake the homemade tortilla chips in their baskets.

But until they become stale on your togs the next day, the mingled perfumes of refried beans and Mexican beer can cheer even someone hard-hit with a solid sinus infection. As pleasant as this olfactory assault is, the same cannot be said of Las Fajitas' all-out blitz on one's ears. On weekend nights, the live Spanish guitar music is amped to such a degree the hostesses can't hear patrons over the phone.

That must be the reason why my "reservation" was lost the night I visited. Las Fajitas guarantees tables only for parties of six or more. No problem, I informed the staffer on the other end of the line, our party would number eight. My name (an alias, of course) and phone number (the real thing) were supposedly written down. But when we arrived, no such reservation existed, and because the place was packed, we were told we'd have to wait about half an hour. "Are you sure you didn't call the other restaurant?" we were asked.

The staff was referring to Señor Burrito Kitchen, an even smaller, busier bus stop of an eatery run by the same proprietor. When I favorably reviewed Señor Burrito Kitchen in 1999, then only a few months old, owner Eduardo Garcia was already contemplating a second venture -- which later materialized as Las Fajitas. But while both names refer to basic Tex-Mex foodstuffs, I doubt the operators at BellSouth, to whom I turned for the Las Fajitas phone number, mixed up the listings. Besides, the hostess also gave me the address, though she couldn't be more specific than "Dixie and 23rd"; when I asked for the street address, she told me the restaurant didn't have one.

Aside from some basic unfriendliness while the reservation hassle was cleared up -- the staff in general appears as frazzled as many daycare providers -- an evening at Las Fajitas can be pretty stimulating if one knows what to expect. So aside from a wait for a table, patrons definitely should anticipate a high decibel level, helped along by the bouncy acoustics of tile-topped tables and a cement floor painted an ochre hue. Keep in mind that the restaurant will likely be as dark as Blinde Kuh (Blind Cow), a restaurant in Zurich that deliberately replicates the experience of blind dining for sighted customers. And rest assured that, despite the prosaic implications of Las Fajitas' name, the food is darn near poetic.

Behold my "Ode to a Refried Bean": Smooth, almost creamy, with a hint of sweetness and plenty of flavor (thanks to an appropriate dose of salt), the beans garnish everything from a mundane mozzarella-and-Jack cheese quesadilla appetizer to a wonderfully tender filet chipotle main course. The latter was smothered with a red chili sauce, vibrant without being spicy, and crowned with melted cheese.

Beef is a good bet at Las Fajitas, even if the signature dish is presented on sizzling plates that have been overheated: We had to scrape the steak off the pan, as it had continued to cook under the pile of sautéed green peppers and onions. Other entrées seem like variations on a theme: The chipotle sauce shows up again on the tostadas Culiacán, a main course comprising two crisp corn tortillas laden with beans, chicken or beef, lettuce, fresh buttery avocado, and cheese. A pasilla chili pepper sauce dresses everything from steak chunks to a steak burrito to a steak pepito (like a submarine sandwich).

But if the cooks at Las Fajitas tend to rely too much on a couple of sauces, they also don't shy away from making the more complex ones, including a terrific brown mole sauce that puts those of finer -- and more expensive -- Mexican restaurants to shame. This rich, savory gravy complements only one dish, the mole rojo burrito, a tender tube filled with chicken and cheese. The combination of textures and mild-but-intense flavors ensures that the burrito is a standout -- and on some nights, I imagine, a sellout.

Though one or two items may have been overcooked, nothing at Las Fajitas was stale. Even the Mexican rice, which in other places often contains dried-out kernels and withered vegetables, had moist, freshly steamed appeal. The guacamole, offered as an appetizer, also is a high point. Las Fajitas uses Haas avocados, which have twice the fat of Florida avocados, to base the dip. Spiced with cilantro and juicy with nuggets of tomato and white onion, this stuff is worth the calories.

I suppose I might have come to the same conclusion about dessert -- flan is the only option -- if we'd been offered any. As it was, we were the last party in the house, and the staff clearly wanted us out. Another example of lame hospitality. If customers feel the need to linger, perhaps Las Fajitas, which has the feel of a jazz club, should consider extending its hours. Closing at 10:00 on a Saturday night is fine for just any suburban restaurant. But having fed its guests great fare at awfully inexpensive prices and plied them with Coronas and live music in a dark, smoke-friendly venue, Las Fajitas is priming its guests to spend their money at the town's other nightspots.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick