Casa Mariachi serves up a menu of traditional Mexican fare to a soundtrack of stomach-pleasing melodies. Enter the lively environment and graze on the house guacamole, which is prepared tableside and served with freshly fried tortilla chips ($8.50), or find a traditionally garbed waiter and ask for a cup of hearty tortilla soup ($4.95) to distract your appetite until the main meal makes a debut. Like an oil tycoon, all fajitas arrive at the table engulfed in flames, and sizzling options such as fresh fish fillet ($14.45), chipotle-marinated chicken ($12.95), and steak ($13.95) remain tastily intact on the piping-hot skillet. Created by former Mexico-based tamale vendors, Casa Mariachi’s homemade tamales are filled with stone-ground corn and packed with seasoned chicken or perfectly spiced pork (five for $13.95). Pair your fare with a beverage from the long libations list, which describes drinks such as the chili pepper–infused signature mariachi margarita ($9) and Juanito’s organic margarita, which is made with organic lime, lemon, and orange ($12). On the weekends, guests can enjoy live mariachi entertainment and ballet folklorico dancing.
At Juan & Maria's Empanada Stop, a bell chimes regularly throughout the day, ringing along with the festive Latin music in the background. Its sound does not indicate the time, however?it greets every 50th customer to the empanada hot spot and rewards him or her with $5 worth of complimentary Spanish cuisine. When Chilean couple Juan and Maria Contreras opened their stand in 2000, they rarely had the opportunity to use the bell, as they were serving between 10 and 20 empanadas on any given Saturday. Today they dish out a minimum of 1,000 empanadas each day, vying to beat their current record of 1,504 empanadas sold in eight hours.
Their popularity stems in part from a commitment to traditional, healthy cooking methods. Each of their empanadas is handmade and stuffed with one of 12 types of filling, including 90% lean beef and pork as well as vegetarian options. The deep fryers are filled with light salad oil, and none of the menu items include chemicals or preservatives. Juan and Maria extend the same homemade treatment to their fruit juices, which can be frozen and sold as "Juan-sicles," and their four hot sauces: green gold, red gold, spanish mayo and spanish ketchup.
Attitude accounts for a second element of the pair's success. Their mix of hospitality and cultural pride draws diners to the turquoise shop, where Juan exuberantly lists the specials to newcomers. They have hosted the Juan & Maria's International Spanish Festival for the past four years, showcasing customs from 20 Spanish-speaking countries alongside their empanadas.
Just a few steps down a walkway lined with flowers and lush foliage brings them to the doorway of a Victorian building—hard to miss, in its brilliant shade of violet. Once inside, one may be excused for thinking that one has stepped into a time warp. Pastel-colored tables surround an elegant couch in a parlor decorated with a hodgepodge of porcelain sculptures and decorative plates that evokes an era long past.
With their easygoing demeanor and willingness to strike up a conversation on the spot, the parlor’s friendly staff members are also an anachronism of sorts. Their menu includes selections for brunch, lunch, and afternoon tea, from bite-size pastries to hearty slices of quiche. Steamy brews such as earl grey, peach rooibos, and Japanese sencha tea pour forth from teakettles emblazoned with polka dots or cast in the shapes of plump bunnies and perky frogs. Children play-act in the parlor during tea parties, pulling on sequined dress-up clothes and communicating through vocoders that embellish their voices with British accents.
Thirteen hours. That's how long pork absorbs flavor inside a billowing smoker before the tender meat is pulled apart for layering inside burritos and quesadillas, or on top of nachos and salads. Cowboy Burrito’s cooks sizzle other meats, too, including marinated chicken, seasoned steak, or shrimp tossed with garlic and lime juice. Meals get a kick with salsa in flavors such as sun-dried tomato or habanero-cumin, dollops of chipotle sour cream, or sides of house-made chili con carne.
Within the brightly colored walls of the dining room or in the cozy lounge area adorned with leather furniture and flat-screen televisions, guests can enjoy Mexican and American dishes seasoned with fresh lime and authentic spices. Goblets of salt-rimmed margaritas complement plates of smoked-pork-cheek tamales wrapped in cornhusks and topped with fresh salsa.
At Label 7, fresh ingredients such as crisp shaved fennel and gruyere cheese garnish entrees inspired by the light, healthy cuisine of California's Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Wicker chairs flank tables in the softly lit indoor dining room. Oversized white flowerboxes stand guard along the perimeter of a canal-side patio, where a brigade of umbrellas shields patrons from splashing during nearby diners’ attempts to literally wade through the wine list.