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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Restaurant Review: La Fogata Grill
Yesterday, Gary and I tried out a new restaurant that opened up just a couple of blocks from our house: La Fogata Grill at 1175 Worthington Woods Boulevard, which describes its cuisine as "Authentica Mexicana". We were all kinds of hopeful, because the restaurant that previously occupied the space was La Costa, a seafood-oriented Mexican restaurant that was really damn good and sadly only open from 2002-2005; the space has been empty since they folded.

So, with savory memories of La Costa's mole chicken dancing in my head, we went inside. And were greeted by a smiling blonde waitress standing beside a t-shirt display under glass. Uh oh. Clearly this place was not run by the La Costa folks, and a quick glance at one of the business cards by the cash register confirmed my suspicion. The proprietor is Jeff Rinehart, and this is the third of a citywide chain he's founded.

Restaurants are a hard business to be in, especially in a market with so much competition like the Columbus area. So clearly the La Fogata Grill chain has got something good going on, right? So we took our seats and started browsing the menu.

Let me back up just a minute for a disclaimer: when a Columbus restaurant claims to serve authentic Mexican food, I try not to take these claims very seriously. Really, I do, because I am inevitably disappointed.

I grew up in San Angelo, Texas, which when I was a teenager had no Thai, no Indian, no Korean, no sushi, and the best we had for Italian was an Olive Garden. What we did have were legendary steakhouses like Zentner's, Zentner's Daughter, and the Lowake Steakhouse. And we had a bounty of Mexican restaurants I didn't truly appreciate until I moved to the midwest. Holy mole, does San Angelo have Mexican. There's Fuentes Cafe downtown, and Mejor Que Nada, Henry's, and Rosa's, home of excellent tamales. If a Mexican place lasts in San Angelo, you know that either the food is really, really good, or they've got an exceptional bar. The cuisine is a cardiologist's nightmare all the way around, but you'll die a happy diner.

The Mexican restaurants I grew up with are better described as "Tex-Mex" and will not seem authentic to somebody who grew up in Baja or Mexico City. There's a subjectivity to the whole authenticity thing that I try to set aside in favor of a simpler question: does the food taste good?

When Gary and I have gone out for Mexican since La Costa failed, our default restaurant has been El Acapulco at 7475 Vantage Drive. I suppose El Acapulco serves as our baseline comparison these days; it's not the best Mexican in town, but it's a short drive, tasty, and inexpensive. Foodwise it's probably on par with the local El Vaquero chain.

But I digress. Back to Fogata Grill. Gary and I ordered the deluxe nachos as an appetizer, and for the entrees I got their Plato del Mar (shrimp and scallops in ranchero sauce) and Gary fell off the beef wagon and got a fajita quesadilla. Those three items plus drinks ended up being about $33, which seems par for the course

The first thing we got were the old standby chips and salsa. The chips were tasty, and not too greasy. The salsa was on the thin side and surprisingly hot.

The nachos were piled high with refritos, beef, shredded chicken and lettuce; what they did not have was much cheese. The nachos were tasty, but there was just a bare whisper of melted queso blanco on them.

Gary reported that his quesadilla was also tasty, but once again, it had just a token amount of queso blanco on it; my plato del mar was similarly lacking in cheesiness. I like cheese, and I expect to see it on Mexican dishes that incorporate it. I wondered if the kitchen had run out. We may have to go a second time to see if cheese is still skimpy. If it is, and if you're lactose intolerant, this may be the restaurant for you; it sadly will not be the restaurant for me.

My meal was good. The seafood sauce, rather than being the chili-based sauce I expected, was a kicky tomato sauce that struck me as being more Italian in flavor despite the heat. The shrimp and scallops were plentiful and flavorful. The "Mexican" rice alongside was cooked up with corn, peas, and lima beans -- in short, it was screamingly unauthentic but it was tasty and my favorite part of the dish. The plate also came with some sauteed veggies which I got too full to do more than sample, but they were nicely cooked and attractively presented.

So, in summary, was the food good? Yes. Although the nachos and quesadilla needed more actual cheese, I certainly appreciated the emphasis on meat and vegetables; I've been to more than a few Mexican joints that offer only sad little iceberg salads and overcooked bell peppers, and this place was leagues better than that. If you're concerned with a healthy diet, you can probably safely eat here as long as you avoid the chips and refritos and other fried items. Was the food authentic? Not so much -- I wish it had been billed as Mexican fusion rather than authentic Mexican, but I may be nitpicking. We'll be giving them another try to see if they might become a new go-to Mexican restaurant.

The restaurant scored well on other measures: the facilities were comfortable and clean, our waitress was attentive without being intrusive, and the food was served very promptly.

For more information about the La Fogata restaurants, visit http://www.lafogatagrill.com/.



June 2009 update: The Worthington location has folded; the Pickerington location remains open for business.

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