CANNON BEACH - Tex-Mex restaurants are going great guns in these parts. Astoria, for example, has four of them - more than likely a saturation level for a town its size - while Seaside and Long Beach, Wash., aren't far behind.
Cannon Beach, conversely, hasn't enjoyed a surfeit of Tex-Mex eateries. But then this town of weathered-wood storefronts, chi-chi cafes and upscale taverns doesn't include any Chinese restaurants or fast-food franchises, either.
Draw your own conclusions. Fact is, food-wise there isn't much to differentiate any of a dozen or so Tex-Mex joints from the rest of the pack, with the exception of, say, Astoria's Rio Cafe and The Stand in Seaside. Otherwise, they all purvey burritos stuffed to bursting with shredded beef, beans and whatever, enchiladas smeared with ranchero sauce and crispy taquitos rolled around chunks of chicken. In some cases, the restaurants' menus appear virtually identical.
Conveniently situated across Hemlock Street from the Tolovana Beach Wayside, La Fiesta offers a similar lineup - the voluminous menu lists more than 100 items, including Mexican pizza, a slew of combo plates, other familiar selections and an impressive array of south-of-the-border-inspired cocktails. It's a hugely successful recipe used by Tex-Mex eateries throughout the Columbia-Pacific region.
It's interesting that the building housing La Fiesta has hosted numerous restaurants during the last decade; most weren't memorable. Once inside, however, patrons may recognize La Fiesta's happy-cantina color scheme. Those booths and benches splashed with rainbow colors, the tables formed with vibrant flower, bird and cactus carvings, the chairs adorned with sunbursts, parrots and smiling half-moon faces and the bright red, yellow, blue, green and pink hues throughout are on display at sister restaurants El Ranchero in Astoria and Warrenton's El Compadre.
Unfortunately, key authentic Mexican ingredients are missing from La Fiesta's food. Traditional seasonings such as roasted or toasted garlic and chili peppers are used sparingly, and the mole exhibits little of the hoped-for distinctive chocolate-chili flavor. Vegetable choices are garden-variety, and while few countries enjoy Mexico's seafood bounty, shrimp, scallops and crab are this kitchen's main mariscos. An exception is the splendid Sopa 7 Mares, the menu's sole soup that's awash with seven seafoods.
Camarones al mojo deajo (shrimp cooked in garlic) showcases an ample helping of butterflied shrimp - slightly overdone, but still tasty - sauteed with chopped onions, sliced mushrooms and a hint of garlic. More enticing are camarones Monterey sheathed in rashers of bacon. This surf-turf combo - the bacon perfectly complements the briny shrimp - is a crunchy succulent delight. If you crave spicy camarones, opt for the ala diabla rendition.
As per the conventional formula, shredded iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes and refried beans with melted cheddar are part of many meals; whole beans are an option. Most disappointing is the sameness of sauces: The unremarkable tomato-based sauce drenching a hefty chunk of farmed salmon isn't much different from the mixture dousing a shrimp enchilada, and so on. Where are those distinctive chilies and spices that distinguish Mexican cuisine?
For something different, order the picadillo, a blend of skirt steak, cubed potatoes, onions and tomatoes, or pork chops topped with mushrooms and other veggies. Tacos al Pastor - chopped and marinated pork infused with pineapple and rolled in a corn tortilla - resemble hearty Mexican street food.
And why not eggs for dinner? A lusty serving of huevos rancheros can be had; more satisfying are chorizo con huevos (semi-spicy sausage blended with eggs) or huevos revelos (eggs scrambled with onions, tomatoes and jalapenos).
Don't neglect the salsa (the Mexican word for "sauce"); this version is plenty enthusiastic, fueled with jalapeno peppers and chili powder and imbued with cilantro, the herb of choice in Tex-Mex restaurants. Naturally, warm chips arrive alongside.
Part of the La Fiesta formula is substantial portions. Two could eat heartily here for less than $40. Yet, many dinners leave room for dessert, preferably something (anything!) beyond "deep-fried" ice cream, bland flan or sopapillas (chopped flour tortillas) smothered in syrup, cinnamon and butter. Betcha the first Tex-Mex joint to serve something gushing gobs of chocolate makes a killing.
Contact the Mouth at The Daily Astorian, P.O. box 210, Astoria, OR 97103 or phone (503) 325-3211 or e-mail email@example.com
Two stars (out of four)
3401 Hemlock St.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, Saturday.
Prices: Moderate. Entrees top out at $13.75, and most are less than $10. Two could eat heartily for less than $40.
Superior selections: Sopa 7 mares, picadillo, huevos revelos, camarones Monterey.
Atmosphere: Like a gaily decorated cantina.
Service: Youthful and friendly.
Kid-friendly: This is the promised land for children who favor Tex-Mex. And there's a handful of meals for kids younger than 12 that include a soft drink.
Vegetarian options: Seven choices, such as a bean enchilada, veggie burrito and chili relleno.
Alcohol: Full bar, including an impressive array of cocktails.
Access: The entrance and restrooms are accessible to people in wheelchairs.
Credit cards: Mastercard, Visa.
Personal checks: OK.
Reservations: Not necessary.
Smoking: Not permitted.