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Mario's Super at Delivering Mexican Beyond the Edge of Restaurant Row

Whole place has an informal grace, with fare that irreproachably praiseworthy.

"There's a ledge beyond the edge!" So exclaimed the late comedian Bill Hicks, describing where Keith Richards metaphorically landed after going over the edge. It also applies well to , which lies just past the eastern edge of La Mesa Boulevard's restaurant row. And no, Mario's has little else in common with Keith Richards, other than perhaps breakfasts that "start you up."

Mario's De La Mesa sits on the corner of La Mesa and Grant Avenue—at the crossroads between business and residential districts, and across the street from the Aesthetic Arts Institute of Plastic Surgery (only in La Mesa).

The simple, brick-and-windows building rests just slightly uphill, looking a little rustic with its old-timey lamp and hitching post where presumably La Mesa residents left their ponies when the restaurant settled on this location 15 years ago, way back when.

Original owner Mario Lopez opened the place nearly 30 years ago, eventually passing the reins to Ernest (nicknamed Early) and Patricia Ponce, his son-in-law and daughter, who are assisted by Mario's grandson Ruben Ponce. Fittingly, this family owned restaurant is ideal for family dining (the menu calls it "authentic family Mexican cuisine"), with a casual atmosphere, reasonable prices and kids' choices such as cheeseburgers.

On a Saturday night, our party of five arrived without a reservation. We were seated immediately. Laminated folding menus were set atop unintentionally retro paper-placemats that say "Mexican Fiesta" and teach patrons basic Mexican terms such as "¿Como esta usted?"

Style-wise,  "If it ain't broke don't fix it" seems to be the philosophy here, with the restaurant apparently unbroken since the mid-1980s. Decor is standard Mexican-style but unobtrusive, avoiding touristy trappings like bright mariachi colors or ginormous sombreros in favor of the occasional brass-and-copper perching parrot.

The whole place has an informal grace, and foodserver Karina (aka Mayra) was vigilant, gladly answering questions—though the menu is very straightforward—and responding to my goofy comments with smiling, hearty laughs.

Chip baskets were kept full, augmented by salsa with the kick of a Rockette barging through a door and plastic spoons so you don't have to double-dip. We ordered extra guacamole ($5), which was very fresh and sported small chunks of carrot and radish. Its flavor was light, leaving patrons to mix in salt, pepper or salsa to the level they prefer. (Guacamole served with the meals had notably more garlic.)

Mario's La Mesa serves beer and wine only, but they do have a small assortment of agave wine-based margaritas, which are just as flavorful but will prevent you from needing to crawl home. The standard and the strawberry choices ($4.25) were both satsifying.

Among our meal orders were:

  • Chicken Molé ($10.95), which has a chocolate almond flavored molé sauce, and mixes in sesame seeds, onions, bell peppers and muchrooms. My friend, a molé afficonado, said it was "tantalizing and not too chocolatey."
  • Carnitas Rojoas ($10.95), a marinated pork dish with red chile sauce, and sauteed with onions, mushrooms, bell peppers and tomatoes, as well as a hearty portion of guacamole. My friend said it was "good," although I asked for a better adjective, such as "irreproachably praiseworthy."
  • The Home Made 8-oz. Tamale ($5.95). This was from the a la carte section, but still qualified as a meal enough to necessitate a to-go box. Topped with cheese and ranchero sauce, the pork tamale was good 'n' hot with a fluffy, light corn texture.
  • Cheeseburger with Fries ($4.95, for kids). Our 4-year-old friend loved the fries, and called the cheeseburger "tasty," but he didn't care for the lettuce and tomato because "he's not a vegetable guy."
  • Mar y Tierra, or seafood casserole and carne asada ($14.95). It's the most expensive item on the menu for a reason: There's about three meals here (in fact, that's what it became via a to-go box). This is toothsome, gratifying food. The seafood includes shrimp, fish and scallops in a chipotle sauce, but I opted to try the restaurant's more subtle "Don Gallo" sauce, which appears in several of the menu items.

So what is "Don Gallo" sauce? It's a green chile-based au gratin sauce, but who's this Don Gallo fellow? That's what I wondered, and foodserver Karina admitted she wasn't sure, so she asked other restaurant staff. Exasperated, she came back and admitted that "Nobody knows!"

Finally, Mario's grandson Ruben Ponce showed up and set the record straight: When Mario ran the kitchen almost three decades ago, everybody called him Don Gallo because "gallo" means "rooster," and Mario was "head rooster of the chicken coop." You learn something new every day.

We pondered this fowl knowledge over a dessert of homemade flan, complemented with whipped cream and crunchy pastry. Everyone was very content to have landed at Mario's La Mesa, the friendly restaurant ledge beyond the restaurant-row edge.

Elisabeth Morse January 16, 2011 at 07:04 PM
This is our absolute fave Mexican restaurant: We've been loyal customers for years, even before they moved to the Village. My consistent choice is the beef flautas-have never found any better. My husband LOVES the chicken burrito. They are always fast and friendly without fail. We've tried a few local competitors, and there's just no comparison.
Lisa S January 17, 2011 at 12:10 AM
We LOVE Mario's, not only for the food, but for the friendly service! I particularly LOVE the Sonora style machaca which they make just like my grandmother used to...very hard to find anyplace. Their albondigas are great as are the burritos. They have some good seafood dishes, too! I highly recommend this place to everyone...

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