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  • La Margarita on Calhoun Street opened nearly 50 years ago as Blackie's Corral Rib Bar.

  • The bar room at La Margarita on Calhoun Street.

  • La Margarita on Calhoun Street opened nearly 50 years ago as Blackie's Corral Rib Bar.

  • House salad at La Margarita on Calhoun Street.

  • The legendary blue margarita at La Margarita on Calhoun Street.

  • The Carlito's Special with four types of enchiladas at La Margarita on Calhoun Street.

  • The family room at La Margarita on Calhoun Street.

  • Baby back ribs at La Margarita on Calhoun Street.

  • Individually topped beef nachos at La Margarita on Calhoun Street.

  • Ground beef queso blanco at La Margarita on Calhoun Street.

  • Yellow cheese dip at La Margarita on Calhoun Street.

  • Mexican Potato Soup at La Margarita on Calhoun Street.

  • The Half & Half Fajita combo at La Margarita on Calhoun Street.

Sunday, February 11, 2018 1:00 am

Mexican restaurant a trip down memory lane

RYAN DUVALL | The Journal Gazette

La Margarita

***

Out of a possible five

$$

A sense of nostalgia is what brings folks back to many restaurants.

Even if the food isn't as good as some of the new places, our commitment to the owners and memories of meals past with family there will keep us coming back.

La Margarita on Calhoun Street is one of those places. For me, it is the food that keeps bringing me back. It is not as fancy as some of the newer Mexican places – you won't find wine-braised, beef-cheek tacos with a chipotle-lime crema or the like – but it does old-school Mexican, including those famous blue margaritas, the right way.

If you are pining for sauce-soaked enchiladas with melted yellow cheese instead of that creamy white stuff, this is the place for you, and the Carlito's Special is the dish for you.

It included four enchiladas – ground beef, steak, chicken and cheese – all covered in a blanket of dark enchilada gravy that was so rich and flavorful it was close to a mole. They all sort of melded together on the plate and had that wonderful melted Colby all over the top that pulled away in strands like pizza cheese each time I cut into one with my fork.

Another great find that took me back was the Half and Half Fajita. Though they are just as popular as ever, I don't often get fajitas because they are all kind of the same and rarely impress as much as they did 25 years ago or so when I had my first.

But La Margarita has me wanting to go back for another soon.

The steak was super tender and juicy with just enough caramelized fat to add some flavor. The chicken was just as moist and tender and had just the right amount of seasoning.

Both meats were nicely charred and the onions and green peppers were not overdone so they still had some fresh snap to them.

The rice on the side was fine, but the refried beans were blended too much for my liking.

The Half and Half was a big platter of food, too, so it would be plenty for a couple to share for dinner.

La Margarita does something few newer Mexican places do by offering soup or salad with many of their meals. The house salad was pretty standard fare with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and croûtons.

The Mexican potato soup was also pretty simple but more enjoyable because it reminded me of the soup I used to get at an old cantina-style Mexican restaurant in my hometown that has been closed for decades.

It consisted of just cubed potatoes, onions and green peppers in a flavorful spice-infused red broth made from blended pear tomatoes, but it was a nice belly warmer and was easy to make even better with a little hot sauce and a few crumbled tortilla chips thrown in.

The soup was actually a better place for the chips than the salsa. La Margarita's was blended smooth and had no sign of cilantro or anything to give it flavor. Two pitchers – one hot, one mild – were brought to the table, but both had no more depth than a can of pureed tomatoes.

Though I didn't want it on my enchiladas, there was runny white queso to be had and it was great for dipping chips into. I had the white queso with ground beef, which was super finely diced, and not only used it on the chips but as a condiment throughout my meal. La Margarita also offers a yellow queso dip, which was much thicker and had a decent flavor but was pretty much like a Velveeta concoction anyone could make at home.

The best chips I had were in the Beef Siesta Nachos, which were another throwback as they were individually topped and baked – something few places still do. Most places just dump the ingredients over a pile of chips and call it a day.

I received six sizable chips with seasoned ground beef and that tasty Colby, guacamole, sour cream, lettuce and tomatoes. The meat was nicely seasoned and the sour cream and guac formed a nice barrier between the warm nacho and the cool, crunchy lettuce and nicely ripe tomatoes.

And, yes, I did spoon a little of that hot salsa on each to kick them up a tad.

La Margarita has a page of American dishes and the baby-back ribs, which were on a special during one weekend visit, piqued my interest given the place had its origins as a rib bar. Following the theme, they were nothing fancy, just tender, fall-off-the-bone baked ribs slathered in a sweet, smoky, dark sauce. I had no complaints.

I also had no complaints about the service. The Ochoa family has kept the restaurant open for half a century – it began as Blackie's Corral Rib Bar in 1968 – for a reason and they know how to take care of you.

Its looks also aren't fancy, a bit out of date and heavy on kitsch, but that is kind of what you want from a throwback place.

A trendy, modern place isn't where you want to go for tasty old-school enchiladas.

Restaurant: La Margarita

Address: 2713 S. Calhoun St.

Phone: 456-5857

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Mexican

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Siesta nachos ($9.49), queso ($4.99), Carlito's Special ($17.99), ribs ($19.99 full rack; $14.49 half), Half and Half Fajita ($19.99)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.