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Thursday, March 25, 2004 02:58 pm

The Mexican standout

La Mex manager Raudel Carlos and his wife, Silvia

Frankly, it's hard to differentiate one Mexican restaurant from another. The basics -- tortilla chips, tacos, and beans and rice -- usually taste the same. Springfield boasts at least one notable exception, but it's what La Mex doesn't have that makes it special.

First of all, there are no piñatas at La Mex. That's right, there's a Mexican restaurant in central Illinois that doesn't have paper piñatas hanging from the ceiling -- and not a striped Mexican blanket to be found anywhere. It's refreshing to be able to enjoy Mexican cuisine without being surrounded by decorations that evoke a Tijuana side street. Yes, the restaurant's neon-orange exterior does scream for attention. But inside, the walls are awash in terra cotta and accented with vibrant hues of orange, purple, and teal. The atmosphere gets high marks for being refreshingly subdued and elegant, with oak panels, large vases of silk sunflowers and selected use of pottery and artwork. Iron chandeliers and a large mural depicting a woman making tortillas by hand hang in one of the four dining rooms.

The restaurant is owned by Celia and Margrito Carlos of Morris and managed by one of their eight children, Raudel Carlos. The family also owns La Mex restaurants in five other cities in Illinois, as well as Alaska and Mexico. The family, from south central Mexico, moved to the United States in 1975. When they began scouting sites a few years ago, there were only a couple Mexican restaurants in Springfield. By the time they opened here in September 2003, La Mex had ample competition.

Complicating things, Raudel Carlos readily admits there were problems when La Mex opened, including computer glitches and the wait staff. Those kinks, he says, have been worked out. "I want people to give us a second chance," Carlos says. I dined there twice recently and was satisfied with every aspect of the experience, from the food to the service.

La Mex's menu, which consists of many family recipes, reflects variations of authentic Mexican dishes. "We make everything from scratch," Carlos says. "No sauce comes in a can." Some recipes had to be reinvented because of the inability to get all the fresh ingredients they would find in Mexico. The chicken mole, for instance, would be made with seven kinds of peppers in his native country, but is made here using two kinds -- a red pepper and chili red hot pepper. He also won't hesitate to steer customers to the best dishes and give them honest opinions about others.

As soon as I was seated, a basket of tortilla chips and two kinds of fresh salsa (green and red) were delivered to my table. The green salsa, made with tomatillas, had a kick and was my favorite.

I have sampled several dishes during my visits there, including the Chicken Mole, a huge platter of chicken breast strips cooked in a rich gravy-like pepper sauce and served with flour tortillas. The mole, which traditionally has a hint of chocolate, provides a medley of spices without burning the tongue.

My favorite dishes are the Chili Rellenos (a sweet green pepper filled with cheese and dipped in egg batter and fried, then covered in a rich red pepper sauce). I use chili rellenos as the benchmark for Mexican restaurants. Some places produce blobs of cheese mixed with a pepper that has been overcooked to the point of disintegration. La Mex, however, offers a dish that maintains the pepper's heat and texture while melding it nicely with the cheese and sauce.

I also like the Pollo Ranchero, a mixture of strips of chicken breast cooked in a light, green chili sauce with onions and topped with cheese. It is served with flour tortillas, so you could make your own soft taco.

The homemade guacamole is thick and chunky. The margaritas are smooth and sweet.

The extensive menu includes flautas, quesadillas, tostadas, tacos, enchiladas, burritos, chimichangas, and fajitas. There are vegetarian plates, salads, and special dinners, including Carlos' favorite: Carne a La Tampiquena (skirt steak butter fried and topped with two cheeses and enchiladas Poblanas, and served with rice, beans and sour cream and guacamole.) Other dinners include Chile Rojo (beef simmered in spiced chili sauce with flour tortillas) and Bistec Con Rajas (grilled steak seasoned with poblano peppers, onions and cheese melted on top with flour tortillas).

There are daily specials, such as a taco plate for $5.95 on Mondays and any burrito for $5.95 on Wednesdays. Lunch specials are served from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and dinner specials are served from 4-10 p.m. Beverages include margaritas, specialty drinks, wines, beer and soft drinks.

La Mex is located at 2830 Stevenson Dr., Springfield. Phone: 217-585-6767. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.

Food mood music

August Mrozowski, owner of Augie's Front Burner, is dishing up a little mood music to accompany his culinary creations.

Mrozowski has produced a CD containing songs composed and performed by Phil Minardi, featuring titles like "Fine Wine" and "Black Bean Cakes."

Included with the CD are a few of Mrozowski's recipes, such as Sesame-Encrusted Yellowfin Tuna, Key Lime Pie and Strawberries with Sabayon.

Here's a sample recipe:

Gazpacho Soup

1/4 cup olive oil
4 cucumbers
3 peppers
4 tomatoes
1/4 small onion
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 tablespoon oregano
1/2 tablespoon basil
2 drops each of Tabasco, Lea & Perrins
1 quart tomato juice
1/2 quart V-8 juice

Chop all vegetables into small dices. Put vegetables in large container, and add oil, vinegar and all other seasonings. Mix thoroughly. Add juices and mix again. Refrigerate several hours. Serve chilled with croutons and avocado pieces.

The CD is available at Augie's Front Burner, 109 S. Fifth St., Springfield. Phone: 217-544-6979. Web site: www.augiesfrontburner.com.


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