Sunday, May 31, 2009

La Mina Mañana

I hadn’t packed my usual lunch for the office on Friday and the thought of melted cheese, jalapenos, fresh salsa, crispy corn tortillas and guacamole wouldn’t leave my mind. So I asked one of the secretaries at my office for the name of the Mexican restaurant she frequents that has the roasted fresh jalapenos she has generously shared with others in the lunch room, and she quickly responded, “Oh, La Mina! That’s right down on H Street. Go past Truxtun, under the freeway , and it’s just before California, on the left.”

With nachos on my mind, I popped in my car and headed down H Street. And there it was, just like she said, in a little strip mall on the left. I was immediately attracted by their sign on the corner. The next thing I noticed was Connie’s Kupcake Kreations, just a couple doors down in the same strip mall. “Hmm,” I thought, “I’ll stop there next and get some cupcakes for the office.”

Inside La Mina I had an instantly positive impression. It was clean, felt cozy and well cared for, was filled with the aroma of red chiles, fried tortillas, cilantro, and all those ingredients that make Mexican one of my top three favorite foods (a close tie with Indian and Italian) and, since it was nearly 2:00 PM, there were only one or two people ahead of me ordering.

I eyed the menu posted above the order counter, which was written in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, but know enough to decipher that nearly everything on the menu contains meat, fish or eggs (I am vegetarian). However, besides rice, beans, bean burritos, tostadas, and quesadillas, the menu did include my craving, nachos, and they’re a dollar off without meat; just my kind of bargain. I placed my order with a handsome and clean cut young man and he verified that I wanted it sans meat. I asked about the roasted jalapenos too. He checked on the cost and informed me they were 75 cents each. I thought that was a little much for a roasted jalapeno but my craving for them won out and I ordered two. A young lady who was giving another customer their order at the pick-up counter looked over our way and said, “They are 75 cents each, or three for 99 cents.” That sold me, and I changed my order to three.

During the short wait I filled up a few little plastic containers with salsa and pickled carrots & jalapenos; then my order was ready. I gave my thanks, went out the front door, and headed toward Connie's Kupcake Kreations. Ten steps out the door and the young man from behind the counter called out to me, “M’am! Wait a minute!” He ran up to me and explained that although he had confirmed with me that I wanted no meat on my nachos, he hadn’t made this clear to the cook. He checked my order and sure enough, the container heavy with piping hot nachos was also heavy with shredded beef. He said they’d make me a fresh batch right away. I thanked him profusely for catching this and told him I’d be right back after I picked up some cupcakes.

Connie’s Kupcakes was an airy and comfy shop, nothing at all like the slick Sprinkles cupcake store I used to go to in Beverly Hills. The glass bakery case displayed seven or eight varieties of cupcakes, each flavor offered in both a gigantic size (big enough to share) and a mini size (2-3 bites). They looked scrumptious, thick with butter cream, chocolate or cream cheese frosting, and cleverly decorated too (I liked the white on white cupcakes with sprinkles, topped with little plastic basketballs… Go Lakers!). Their prices ranged from $2.00 to $2.50 each for the large size, and $1.00 each for the small. Remembering the 16 employees at the office that day, including seven substantial guys, and that 2-3 bites each would just not do, I ordered an assortment of 17 large cupcakes. Red Velvet, Peanut Butter, Chocolate Chip, Mocha with Coffee Frosting (this was a butter cream frosting with ground coffee beans in it; amazing!), Black and Whites, Banana Nut, and I’m not sure what they all were. She gave me the $2.50 ones at the $2.00 price, a courtesy I won’t expect the next time I go back, but one that ensured I will be a returning customer.

I unloaded two big boxes of cupcakes into my car’s front seat, strapped them in, and went back to La Mina to pick up my nachos. They were bagged up and ready to go. I thanked the young man again for catching the mistake and chasing me down . What a huge disappointment that would have been if I’d gotten all the way back to my office and not discovered the error until then! I wouldn’t have had the time to go back for a replacement, and would have been less likely to return to La Mina at all.

Back at my office everyone was delighted with the cupcakes. They tasted like homemade; homemade like my Grandma Kosten would have made, the cake not too sweet, rich and light at the same time, with a firmness that melted in my mouth. They were spread thickly with a richer, sweeter frosting that made just the right balance in texture and taste. An employee who had recently left the company was in for a visit that afternoon and the cupcakes turned out to be a great way to celebrate seeing her again.

Before indulging in cupcakes, however, I enjoyed my nachos. Hands down the best nachos I remember ever having had. Move over and take a seat Baja Fresh and La Salsa, because La Mina gets the honors today. Enough for two to share (I’m embarrassed to say I devoured the entire order), homemade tortilla chips were smothered with perfect pinto beans (no lard), jalapenos, zesty guacamole, sour cream, salsa, melted cheese, and topped with crumbled queso fresco. I added the salsa I had packed in the little containers (I’m big on big flavor) and enjoyed the roasted jalapenos, bite by bite (still warm from the grill). Totally hit the spot and satisfied me well enough I did not need dinner that evening. I think next week I will go back to La Mina and try the tostada.

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