Bienvenidos a Carmelita's, Laguna's newest Mexican restaurant.
It replaces the long-gone Vietnamese Cajun restaurant on Broadway with a spiffy new renovation. With its tasteful tile and stonework accents, the remodeled interior might be called modern Mexican. Low lighting from attractive hanging fixtures, a color scheme of brown and beige with ivory-colored studded-leather booths along one wall create a comfortable, upscale atmosphere.
A large bar offering tequilas, margaritas and beer dominates one end of the room. Worth noting is that Carmelita's features its own brand of tequila, Carmelita's Original, which is made in Jalisco, Mexico.
Carmelita's chefs pride themselves on using premium ingredients in their cooking, including kurobuta and Berkshire pork, organic Jidori chicken, prime beef and Chilean sea bass.
But before you sample the results of that cooking, you're presented with a basket of very lightly salted thin, crispy chips served with bowls of tasty, zippy salsa and a mellower black-bean dip.
Tortilla soup could be a meal in itself because it's almost like a stew, loaded with corn, black beans, avocado, carrots, onions and bits of tomato. This is a thick soup, and it is finished with a large dollop of cheese. It was very flavorful on its own and didn't need all that queso; but cheese lovers will just yum it up.
Entradas (appetizers) include the standards: ceviche, quesadillas, nachos etc., plus a few you don't see on every Mexican menu, like costillitas (baby back ribs) with salsa and crispy onions, or crab jalapenos with bacon and cheese.
We had three selections from the clasicos menu: a chile relleno, an enchilada verde and a tamale. The relleno is offered with cheese or carnitas but ours arrived with both. The chile relleno was not battered but was topped with cheese and a little red salsa. It was also stuffed with cheese and some small shreds of bland, unseasoned pork. The chile was good. The cheese was good too, but there was just too much of it.
The enchilada verde with chicken had absorbed every drop of the mild green sauce and the chicken itself was bland. There was more meat and cheese filling than you usually find in a tamale and the masa layer was quite thin and somewhat greasy.
Tacos de hongos from the "favoritos" menu was intended to be a more upscale presentation of a taco. It certainly was unique. Chunks of well-seasoned grilled steak rested on a thick bed of melted cheese studded with mushrooms. Poblano salsa and tortillas were served on the side so you could roll your own. Beans and Mexican rice came in their own little crocks. Our problem was that by this time we were in cheese overload, so we just ate the beef wrapped in a tortilla with some salsa.
Our favorite "favoritos" was the pollo a la chipotle. A very rich, creamy and delicious sauce with an underpinning of smoky chipotle was enhanced with sautéed onions and portabello mushrooms. The large organic Jidori chicken breast had a wonderful smoky grill rub and would have been perfect if it hadn't been overcooked. It came with plain white rice to help you soak up the sauce.
There are several authentic Mexican desserts, including crepes made with Mexican chocolate (a light chocolate with a mild cinnamon flavor), flambéed plantains with Mexican chocolate sauce and candied pecans, as well as churros and flan.
Being flan fans, our choice was easy. The serving was enormous and three of us barely made a dent in it. It tasted more like a dense cheesecake than custard, but it was still tasty, although the light caramel syrup didn't have the deep, rich flavor we expected.
Carmelita's features a nice selection of mariscos (seafood), entrée salads, and prime beef carne asadas. If you can't make up your mind, have the molcajete, which includes prime steak, Jidori chicken, queso fundido, salsa quemada, chiles toreados (roasted jalapeños) and corn. A kid's menu is available.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Go
Information: (949) 715-7829
Where: 217 Broadway, Laguna Beach
When: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday and