Nondescript eatery off I-80 a hidden treasure in heart of strip-mall country
PERU – Some friends of mine who live in Stark County stumbled onto Mi Margarita Restaurant & Cantina more or less by accident. They were in LaSalle-Peru because it was a convenient halfway point for meeting some family from the Chicago suburbs. They’d taken Exit 75 off Interstate 80 and found themselves in pure strip-mall country the dining options were mostly things like Red Lobster.
And there was this Mexican place, which, from the outside, looked completely nondescript. It looked like it might have once been a Chi-Chi’s. They went in, more or less at random. One fabulous meal later, they were telling all their neighbors in Stark County about Mi Margarita. The neighbors said, more or less: “You mean you just now found out about it?”
It’s anyone’s guess just how far south Mi Margarita fan base extends, but they’ve now got at least one fan in Peoria. It’s far better than most of the Mexican restaurants we’ve got here. It offers not just excellent food (in enormous portions), but a relaxed, comfortable dining experience in a nice atmosphere.
The decor, once inside, is nothing extraordinary-your basic Mexican-chain look, really, but understated, with nothing in-your face about it. There’s certainly no danger, as there is at places like Chi Chi’s, that a conga line of clapping waiters is going to snake its way out of the kitchen and put a sombrero on somebody’s head.
The service here is old-fashioned, deferential and impeccable (at least, it was the night we showed up). The menu is rather staggering several laminated pages’ worth of the Mexican standbys, alone and in several dozen combinations (combination platters range from $5.25 to $7.75), and lots of intriguing special ties. One entire page is dedicated to Mexican seafood entrees. They offer eight Mexican beers and, of course, margaritas, in several flavors. There’s a full bar.
First at our table was salsa with tortilla chips. The salsa was soupier than you usually get around here. My friend Chris, who’s spent far more time south of the border than I have, says that’s how it’s often done down there. I wouldn’t know. It was tasty.
We ordered some beef nachos ($6.50), which came on a platter big enough to serve a couple of human heads on. This was a massive heap of nachos, moist ground beef, sour cream, chopped tomatoes and guacamole (“It’s actually real avocado, not full of mayonnaise,” Chris observed of the guacamole). We ate like fiends.
Blow me over if every one of our entrees wasn’t as staggeringly huge as the nachos platter. I didn’t make it more than halfway through mine. Mary had a beef taco, cheese enchilada and tamale combo ($7.75). Chris went with a carnitas (pork) platter ($9.25), which I sampled; the pork was cooked to such heart breaking perfection that I almost slid off my seat. Everything came with rice and beans.
I chose something called Vista Del Mar ($11.95) from the seafood selection -according to the menu, it’s shrimp, crab, scallops and tomatoes, simmered in salsa fresca and white wine. It was topped with melted cheese, sour cream and three elegant slices of avocado, and it came swimming on my plate in a sort of sea. I will admit to having been intimidated and not totally clear on how to eat it. But once I decided to throw caution to the wind and just start mixing everything together, it was a serious pleasure.
I’m not sure I’d make the trip from Peoria just to eat here-it’s more than an hour on the road-but it’s a pretty good argument for taking that route to Chicago.