La Bonita Tacos & Tequila
1850 Rte. 112, Coram
SERVICE: From warm to gruff, depending on server
AMBIENCE: Vivid colors, sparkly lights and lots of loud chatter
ESSENTIALS: Open Sunday to Thursday noon to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon to 11 p.m. Weekend reservations suggested; ample parking; major credit cards accepted; wheelchair accessible.
Thank goodness for the strip-mall cantinas of the world, dependable hangouts for grabbing low-key drinks (often, margaritas) and snacks (chips and salsa) which sometimes segue into uncomplicated, chili-laced feasts.
We tend not to ask too much of such places, except for a bouncy vibe, decent chips and plenty of melted cheese. So it is with La Bonita Tacos & Tequila, tucked into a Coram strip mall.
In its two-plus years, La Bonita seems to have amassed a passionate following: Its orange walls, hanging guitars, sparkly lights, and flickering candles conspire to put you in a cheerful mood, and Mexican-inspired comfort food keeps you there.
The front of La Bonita feels like more of a traditional restaurant, while the back is anchored by a friendly, often-packed bar, with a lineup of more than 40 tequilas. Fittingly, La Bonita’s cocktails can be ambitious — and boozy. Of the margaritas, my favorite was the simple, punchy Patrón-based La Bonita ($12), made with house fresh sour.
As if mirroring the room, La Bonita’s menu is a discordant patchwork of typefaces, colors and dishes culled from myriad places where español is spoken, from Spain (empanadas, queso fundido) to the Caribbean (fried plantains) to south Texas (burritos) to Mexico (tacos, enchiladas, mole).
While you untangle your choices, make sure to have some of La Bonita’s tortilla chips at your elbow. They’re fresh, warm, not terribly salty and come with medium-hot house salsa. You’ll probably plow through them quickly.
The pressure to order tacos in a place named for tacos is strong; however, the smear of refried beans that lurks inside each tends to distract from the delicate flavors of the main event — tender hunks of fried flounder, for instance, or fatty pulled pork. These tacos taste a little bit like burritos, and I took to excavating each one’s innards so I could, for instance, taste the snappy, sweet shrimp within.
Better to hopscotch straight to empanadas, whose crisp, crimped-edge pastry encase any one of eight fillings (these are $3 each at the bar, but a pair will run $8 to $10 table-side). Or go for a plate of lusciously caramelized fried plantains.
A skillet of queso fundido can often get the party going, and La Bonita’s version (we had ours topped with chorizo) is suitably globby, with a smear of red chili sauce across the top of melted Muenster and warm tortillas for scooping. La Bonita’s guacamole is chunky yet just racy enough, though purists might be distressed to encounter bits of chopped tomato. My favorite appetizer was a skillet of jumbo shrimp fired to a snappy char and lounging in a decadent garlic-butter sauce. (At $15, the most expensive of the appetizers).
At some point during a visit, it may become clear that plating is not La Bonita’s strong suit — especially on a packed Saturday night, when waits are long, service was gruff (though some servers are unfailingly warm, others are not) and food sometimes looked thrown on the plate, such as squishy chile relleno with burned edges. Nevertheless, the roasted poblanos that peeked out from blankets of melted cheese and a muted red-chile sauce were meltingly supple, total comfort food.
The best of the larger plates we tried was a charred, peppery and tender grilled skirt steak that left the refried beans and rice alongside it in the dust. Conversely, a mole poblano that looked like liquid midnight was so bitter that no one at the table could brave its inky depths for more than a bite. Mole is a complex dish, with upward of 20 ingredients; this one was out of whack.
Fortunately, meals at La Bonita are bookended by great drinks and chips and, on the back end, crowd-pleasing desserts. While we never got to try the Nutella-and-banana empanadas (the kitchen was out of bananas), a velvety coconut flan ably took its place. And when you’re eating fried Oreo ice cream — even if topped with canned whipped cream — all can seem right with the world.