Mexican restaurants are the great lotteria of SoCal dining. Whether it’s fine dining or your local burrito shack, the chance for disappointment, banal rice and beans, and a lard overdose sits there, much like an El Torrito dinner entrée several hours after the fact. Fantastic Mexican grub exists within our IE confines—Casa Maya in Mentone happens to be for me the platonic ideal, quirky, interesting and from a state, Yucatan, you don’t see much of in the area. I’m also still in mourning five years later over the closing of La Villa, which operated by the railroad tracks near the plaza in Riverside. I’d take my kids there when they were young and they’d emerge bean and rice soaked messes, tributes to the artistry that was going on in the kitchen.
Ixtapa in Fontana offered up another chance to spin the wheel and see where I’d land on the Mexican cuisine scale. The place is fairly nondescript from the outside in a nondescript mini-mall, in a fairly nondescript area of Fontana. There’s a pizza joint to its left. The inside itself is also inauspicious but the futbol on the televisions and the sounds and smells of a frantic kitchen clue me in that I’m in a Mexican restaurant.
As do the chips, salsa, and guacamole that quickly land on our table; all three are staples of Mexican cooking in California, often derided as non-authentic parodies of more traditional dishes. But . . . the chips and salsa at Ixtapa are quite nice, and the guacamole is simply eat-with-your-fingers outstanding, half cooling embrace of the avocado and cilantro, half haberno-inspired heat that builds slowly and then fades off, an occurrence I greedily embraced as I devoured the green remnants in the large mortar and pestle container.
The owner and head chef, Victor Sainz, is from Guadalajara, and much of his cooking stays close to the traditions of the area. His carne in su jugo is a serious plate of well, meat, beef specifically. Normally the dish is prepared with birria (goat) but Victor freely and refreshingly admits he can’t really cook goat that well. Beef however is a different story. The dish here is a lake of beef simmering in juice, supported by green onions and radishes, and a side plate of limes, onions, and flour tortillas. It’s a well-done representation of the dish.
Another standout on the menu is the camarones Costa Azul, basically bacon-wrapped shrimp, which are then stuffed with cheese, an option that originally scared me when I saw it on the menu. I’m finally baconed-out and done with the whole fad, which culminated in Denny’s Bacon Month, a 30-day orgy of inferior pork products. The dish also smacked of a new whacky-appetizer special at the Caribbean-themed restaurant near you. These shrimp are no cartoon though; their juicy center pops as it meets the dry bacon, while the cheese serves as some pretty delicious shrapnel.
Refried beans and the typical rice served at these places bore me as do the salads, but it’s encouraging that the rice has a pea or two in it and the beans aren’t overly lardy. Ixtapa has got all the normal stuff most casual Mexican restaurants have in the area, lengua burrito anyone? Taco Tuesday? The entrees are unique and delicious—I may not have won the lottery, but I got at least five out of the six numbers correct.
Ixtapa Mexican Restaurant, 15034 Foothill Blvd. Suite D Fontana, (909) 829-1099; www.ixtapafontana.com. AE, D, MC, V.