Good, authentic Mexican food can be hard to find. Granted, I’ve never been to Mexico and am operating mostly on second-hand knowledge and general culinary awareness/standards. My experience has been largely that American Mexican restaurants are pretty generic, if not outright bad. The only places I’ve enjoyed as good, well-made, non-chemical/canned/oversalted Mexican-inspired food were a great place in Burlington VT (endorsed by a friend with significant 1st-hand experience in Mexico) and Frontera Grill in Chicago. The last (and only) Mexican meal we had in Columbia, years ago, was Gawd-awful. In a review like this, I’m judging more on the general quality of the cooking and the ingredients than the authenticity; I want to know if the place gives me restaurant mouth or not.
This is a long, detailed review. Please read it all, but if you’re short on time, the result is we’re thrilled with this new Mexican restaurant in Columbia that seems to be striving for a more creative, authentic, high-quality menu than the typical Mexican place. Very much worth trying. Kinda reminded me of House of Chow in which the standard items are normal, but the unusual ones are really good. Onward:
So it was with reservation but intrigue that I saw a long line of positive comments on a review of La Terraza Grill from Como Whine & Dine, a local food blog I read but don’t necessarily trust. That was followed by a strong review from Show Me Eats, a source I very much trust. The combination was enough; after a long recent day, we headed into Columbia to treat ourselves to something different and give it a shot, funded by an Easter gift from parents hoping to encourage us to get off the farm now and then (it worked; thanks!).
The location stinks; tucked into the backside of a strip mall southwest of Providence & Nifong. It’s a maze of poorly planned access streets boxed in by heavy-traffic main roads; development planning SNAFU 101. Probably cheaper rent, though, and they had done a nice job with the interior. Two immediate pluses: no loud music to drown out conversation, and no glaring, flickering TVs no one’s watching. It was quiet and easy to talk; snatches of singing in Spanish could be heard from the open kitchen visible from our booth. Very comfortable.
If anything, the service was too eager. Our server stopped by seemingly every few minutes, though he was friendly and happy to answer questions. Several other staff also stopped by, such that we had to fend off repeated offers of more chips, more water, readiness to order, etc. Our server had a fairly strong accent and spoke very quietly, almost a mutter, so it was sometimes hard to understand him. He earned a good tip, though, as he was pleasant and helpful and just plain good.
The opening chips & salsa were very good. Chips were corny, not at all too salted (we’re very picky about too much salt). Salsa was obviously fresh-made, with nice chunks of cilantro and other herbs, and none of the canned/salted/preservative flavor too often found in such things. I like a chunkier salsa while this one was more liquid, but that’s a personal preference and not a question of quality. Our server confirmed that they make small batches of it as-needed, and ours had been made only a few minutes before. The relative amounts were just right; we finished the last of the salsa with the last of the chips.
Joanna’s Vegetarian Plate #4 was good. Cheese enchilada, a large chile relleno, and uninspiring but not bad beans & rice. She pronounced herself happy, and I liked the flavor of the relleno sauce. No trace of odd additives, always a deal-breaker for us. Seemed that everything was scratch-made or at least from decent ingredients.
My Camaron (shrimp) Ala Diabla was delicious; a plate of good-quality shrimp with a hot chipotle/chile sauce including green peppers, onions, and whole chiles. The menu claimed jalapenos, but these were not jalapenos. These were long, thin, red peppers reminiscent of the Thai hot peppers that are a staple of our kitchen, but hotter. I like hot food, and rarely can get it done well in the Midwest. This sauce was well-named and not for the faint of heart, especially if you chopped up the whole red peppers and included them in bites, but I found it excellent. It was served with piping hot fresh corn tortillas that were perfect for wrapping everything else in. Damn good. On the side, the rice was fine but more typical. The guacamole salad was shredded iceberg topped with a pico de gallo-esque mix of chopped tomatoes, herbs, avocado, and sour cream. For an iceberg salad, it was pretty good, and cut the heat of the shrimp nicely. I tried to get the name of the peppers, but our server either wasn’t sure or couldn’t get it across to his non-Spanish-speaking customer. German & Russian I can do. Spanish, not so much, unfortunately.
Joanna’s classic mojito was nothing special, tasting more of seltzer than anything else. My La Playa margarita was quite good, though I’m hardly an expert on margaritas or tequila. Would’ve been nice presentation to have them in something other than beer glasses, but that’s not a big deal.
We opted for the homemade three-milk cake, which explained to us as milk, evaporated milk, and some kind of sweet milk (dulce de leche, maybe?). It didn’t strike us as much different than a typical white cake with frosting, though moister (in a good way). Not something we’d normally opt for, but it wasn’t bad either and we polished it off. I would have gone for the flan, but they hadn’t made it yet.
This was damn good overall, with a few understandable quirks and lower-quality items (like the refried beans). They’re clearly trying to strike a balance between American-Mexican food enough people will recognize to support them in a crowded marketplace, and more interesting dishes that are probably more authentic and at least more creative for the foodies who stop in. Any such place offering items like beef tongue, truly hot sauces, and a wide variety of seafood & oysters is trying to move beyond the box, and I commend them for it. When we commented on this, our server proudly explained “yes, we are trying to cook this the way it is back in Mexico”. There are lots of reasonable vegetarian options, and the seafood options alone had me paralyzed with indecision. I’d love to see them offer goat someday; maybe we can supply it?
Prices are quite manageable; we left with a $44 tab, including drinks, dessert, and generous tip, and another meal’s worth of excellent leftovers. Two vegetarian meals with water would have had us under $20. Hours later, writing this up, I have yet to feel any sign of over-salted-ness or weird chemical aftertastes we’ve often had from lesser restaurants. I concur with the other reviews; we’re definitely going back, and that means a lot coming from us. It may be a go-to place some Saturday afternoons following market when we’re exhausted and don’t want to cook. Thanks to Como Whine & Dine and Show Me Eats for pointing out La Terraza; I sure hope they succeed.