Rock the Bells
By Bill Gerdes
Las Campanas proves that it’s much less bland than it used to be
Who doesn’t love the Mission Inn, that hodgepodge of architecture, that pastiche of the Spanish Mission, the Asian Garden and the Presidential lounge, where (mostly) Republican presidents smile down (benevolently? malevolently?) at diners and drinkers. There’s also a quirky mix of restaurants here, from Duane’s steakhouse to the underrated and tasty Southern Italian cuisine of Bella Trattoria to Las Campanas, the Inn’s take on Mexican food.
The setting of Las Campanas is beautiful. Located near the entrance, the patio quickly nestles you away, with its lovely ceramic tiled tables, and little gardens. It’s easy to settle in and eat their light airy chips while nursing one of their potent and frankly gargantuan margaritas underneath the summer stars and suddenly realize hours have gone by. On chilly nights, like the last time I went—you might choose instead to eat inside in the Presidential lounge. It’s a cool place to watch guests of the hotel stroll by, and if you’re trying to watch the calories, the chair built for President Taft’s visit would slow down the biggest glutton. It is . . . um very large, as was Taft.
There was a time when the food at Las Campanas was, how shall we say, bland uninspired, and touristy? Yes, that covers it. It was my least favorite restaurant at the Inn, and I considered it basically El Torito but with much better service and atmosphere. I may not have been alone in this impression. But with a new executive chef, Loren Lawe, and a new direction, the menu at Las Campanas is looking up.
On a recent freezing night my wife and I sampled a few entrees and appetizer attempting to ascertain just how better the food had gotten here. Our Shrimp Ceviche was the only low-note of the night. While the shrimp itself was fresh, it didn’t taste as if it had been marinated long at all and was helped only slightly by the mango salsa that sat on top. Much better were my wife’s Fajitas. Nothing too original here, just lean strips of chicken, flash grilled nicely with bell peppers and onions that still retain a bit of crunch, instead of the limp shriveled vegetables you often find with these things.
We also tried the Chile Rellenos, the highlight of which are the pasilla chiles themselves, truly heat bringing little monsters that liven up the dish as they sizzle against the egg batter that encases them. The chile rellenos are in no way bland, and neither is Las Campanas anymore. We topped off the meal with the Chile Verde, tender pork in a tomatillo sauce that compliments the meat nicely. There’s a more subtle sauce and spice here than with the relleno—the heat builds slower and dissipates quicker. The rice and beans that come with the chile verde are refreshingly free of grease, but nothing to write home to mamacita about. The service and wait staff are generally excellent—the view of the stars from the patio on a summer night almost heavenly.
Las Campanas at the Mission Inn, 3694 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 784-0300
www.missioninn.com. Open Sun, Mon-Thurs, 4pm -9pm. Fri-Sat, 4pm-10pm.