By Ashley Bennett
I commuted to Norco College years ago, back when it was just an extension of Riverside Community College. In my routine, the longer I took the same route, the more familiar I became with the area and its less than noticeable smaller businesses I passed along the way. Years later, while avoiding the after-work backup on the 15-freeway, I took the once familiar side-streets through Norco again. Unlike what I had once seen years ago, I counted a number of new establishments—and the one that caught my eye the most was Doña Luisa’s Mexican Grill.
The small restaurant sits in a newer set of buildings; a location that sadly isn’t getting any attention from other tenants. This particular shopping area is mainly a ghost town, there are hardly any businesses running there. That is, except for the glowing red sign emanating from Doña Luisa’s, inviting people in. Once inside, it’s hard to ignore the decor which offers a variety of brightly colored Day of the Dead prints. The atmosphere is calm but lively. It’s a family restaurant where anyone from large groups to couples, Norco-folk to simple passerbys, are drawn to the light of the sign outside. For Californians, we’re like moths to the flame when it comes to a good burrito or enchilada.
At first glance, I thought it was one of those casual sit-downs—a place like Alberto’s (a popular Mexican food chain in the IE) where you have to get up to fill your soda or grab your own ladel-full of salsa. While still offering takeout, their servers at Doña Luisa’s wait on your table, bringing a small basket of warm chips and a side of salsa, refilling drinks and taking your order.
The menu is bursting with both familiar and interesting items. Luisa’s Shrimp Quesadilla was a refreshing change from the typical dried-up cheese quesadilla from Taco Bell—it’s a gooey, wet amalgamation of jack and cheddar cheese in the typical half-circle fold, covered in relleno sauce. Each bite yields the fresh taste of pico de gallo, cheese and occasionally, a bite of a juicy prawn—this is a real quesadilla. It’s a large portion of food for an appetizer; one that could easily be considered a meal. It was a sloppy mess, but who cares what it looks like when it tastes so amazing.
By choice of my dining partner, we ordered something I wasn’t expecting to be any good—a chimichanga. It’s just my reaction to decline something that was an unpopular food on the cafeteria menu of an elementary school. Despite my imagining less than impressive versions of the dish, Luisa’s Chimichanga was a damn good redefinition. The hardened exterior is the perfect opportunity for a wet burrito, slathered and filled with a medium-spiced red sauce that tingles the senses with every crunch. With the added pork and cheese mixed within, it was a deliciously crunchy adventure.
Crunch must have been on my subconscious mind because my Flautas Pequeñas, which came with two tortillas filled with shredded beef and two with chicken, were cooked to crunchy perfection. Rather than being unequally cooked with brittle ends and a softened center, these cylindrical morsels were equally crunchy throughout. Topped with a dollop of sour cream and guacamole, as well as a side of rice and beans, this dish is a good, healthy size. Hey, it’s the New Year. I have to at least try once before giving up on my resolution to eat less, and not more, per meal.
Of course, I was destined to fail the moment I saw the Apple Deep Fried Burrito on the menu. I’ve had deep-fried everything else, thanks to the L.A. County Fair, but this was new territory. The burrito’s warm, crispy exterior surrounded the addicting flavor of cheesy and syrupy innards.
My concluding thought—this was a night of crunchy, satisfying proportions. Doña Luisa’s menu is extensive, ranging from the more familiar Mexican cuisine to some unique dishes with cactus and a variety of breakfast items to boot. It’s got everything—why wouldn’t you check it out?
Doña Luisa’s Mexican Grill, 3250 Hamner Ave., Norco, (951) 280-9549; www.donaluisasmexicangrill.com. AE, D, MC, V.