Baja California’s food could help restaurant overcome location’s history

A friend who’s a restaurant critic in another city calls them elephant burial mounds. They’re restaurant locations where tenants and/or owners seem to cruise on by like so many Mardi Gras floats, leaving not a speck of glitter in their wake.

Sometimes the reason is obvious: There’s not enough parking, or the place is difficult to get into or out of, or too hidden from passing traffic, whether vehicular or foot. More often, though, there seems to be no earthly explanation for the series of oh-so-brief tenures.

A building in Boca Park is a sterling example of the latter. It opened some years ago as Tre, operated by scions of the Maccioni family of Le Cirque fame, which ought to have been a guarantee for survival. It wasn’t.

Tre was followed by Hannah’s, operated by a daughter, this time, of the An family of Los Angeles restaurateurs, who at the time had a large (and successful, it seemed) restaurant on the Strip. History repeated itself.

There was a restaurant named Seastone, and another whose opening was announced as imminent but never materialized. And then came Hotel California — now called Baja California Restaurant & Cantina, but this time it’s the same business, with a name change simply for clarity.

The owners of Baja California obviously came into their elephant burial mound with their eyes open. There were some light-hearted references to it at the time of the restaurant’s debut, with a shaman burning sage in the place and a signature cocktail called The Jinx, which contained sage (and has itself disappeared, more’s the pity).

So that’s a good sign, and maybe this time the timing will be right. But if Baja California is going to reach a level of excellence, it will have to do some work on the kitchen’s timing.

We went about midway through a weeknight and found a pretty decent-sized crowd. The hostess was a gem; in fact, every employee we encountered was pleasant and seemed eager to go above and beyond, so props to whoever trained them.

Although we don’t usually like to do this, we ordered everything at the same time — cocktails, starter and entrees. Normally we like a little bit of a lull during our cocktails, but we figured we’d take a flier. Our server brought glasses of ice water with lemon and went off to fetch the cocktails.

We were a little surprised, then, when our soup and salad arrived immediately, before the cocktails. Even our server was chagrined when he brought the drinks and realized the runner had already been there. While we’d have preferred even a few minutes’ delay, we really liked the big bowl of smooth black-bean soup with just a little kick, and queso blanco, cilantro and scallions on top. It was deeply flavored but not overwhelming, piping hot and just a great choice.

The salad was almost the opposite, although the quality was the same. This time the mood was cool and crunchy, with a mix of lettuces, a vinaigrette heavy on the vinegar (that’s a good — no, a great — thing), plus tortilla strips and chunks of tomato and cheese.

But we’d barely dug into them when our starter of queso fundido ($7) arrived, so it was abandon soup and salad or let the appetizer get cold. Instead we tried to split the difference, with limited success.

The melted cheese was decent enough — and thankfully didn’t separate, like some — but it was bland in the extreme, which wasn’t helped by the chicken. On the side we were served four small tortillas, which weren’t enough for the cheese, but we figured we’d snag some from our fajita entree.

Except that this was where the timing issue really caught up with Baja California. Practically rushed through our first two courses, we had a long wait for the third — at least 20 minutes, by our estimation. But then we’d taken silverware to the remaining cheese, as we waited. And waited.

The fajitas ($18) were promising, sizzling as it (they?) was (were?) served, and the runner picked up the half lime that had been brought to the table soon after we were seated and, grabbing the citrus squeezer that hangs from a rack on every table, squeezed juice over, increasing the sizzle. (The menu proclaims, "Every dish is better with a squeeze of fresh lime," which explains the duo.) The beef was well seasoned and cooked perfectly with bell peppers and onions, but again, the little tortillas. Now, those tortillas appeared to be housemade and were really pretty good, but the size was the problem. For the appetizer, maybe, but for fajitas? We needed something much larger to contain all that goodness.

Mushroom suiza enchiladas ($17) were excellent, cheesy but with plenty of wild mushrooms for texture and flavor, with tomatoes and lettuce on top and a tomatillo cream sauce. Both entrees were accompanied by a big mound of mixed black and pinto beans and corn, which were very good and a nice departure from the usual, and a bigger mound of cilantro-flecked rice, and ditto on that.

Although we had a long lull there, at least the place is easy on the eyes, with a huge water wall that’s nearly mesmerizing and other artistic accents.

Will Baja California finally put these elephant ghosts to rest? We hope so. But the job would be easier if the kitchen worked on its timing.

Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or email her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.

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