La Paz: familiar, satisfying Tex-Mex, but not the Ultimate Tortilla


Gourmets dream of a sublime creme brulee, or the brioche of brioches. But when I dream of food, really fresh corn tortillas -- hot and fragrant, the kind you find (though not everywhere) in Texas and Mexico -- are near the top of the list.

Our latest stop in the search for the Ultimate Tortilla was La Paz. The building, tucked behind a parking deck, is one of those quaint little brick numbers in which Frederick specializes, but the interior set the scene with stucco and folkloric art.

When the tortilla chips arrived, we knew right away that they were far from ultimate. They were not too oily or salty, and were reasonably fresh, but didn't have that heady ground-maize taste. And the menu wasn't too interested in exploring the more intriguing byways of traditional Mexican cuisine. Still, La Paz came through with what most of us look for in this kind of eatery -- heaps of filling, familiar Tex-Mex, with prices that top out at $9.75.

As the temperature had reached 104 the day we dined, we sought appetizers that would refresh, not stuff us. Gazpacho ($2.25), a cool soup made of pureed vegetables, was tangy and its flavors were well-blended, though I wished it colder and crunchier and zingier. And it didn't really need that big blob of sour cream.

Nopalitos are slices of prickly-pear cactus, which look like green beans and have a soft texture (and no hint of prickles). They were combined with lettuce, onion and ripe tomato in the refreshing ensalada de nopalitos ($2.75), which came bathed in chilly, biting vinaigrette.

As no salsa arrived with the chips, we popped for a small order of chili con queso ($2.75). The dip's grainy texture indicated that it had been made with natural cheese, such as Cheddar, rather than something smooth-melting, down-market and traditional, such as Velveeta. This should have given it an advantage, but it didn't.

As someone who thinks eating Tex-Mex is a good excuse for consuming mass quantities of cheese, I enjoyed the combo of a plump bean and cheese burrito and a cheese enchilada ($6), which must have contained about a pound of the stuff. Neither, refreshingly, was coated in gooey sauce; instead, each was crowned with a different spicy salsa.

Chicken La Paz ($8) sounded like a lighter choice, but the "special sauce" that napped the white meat chunks, veggies and rice was creamy and rich, and more of that furry chili con queso was poured over the broccoli. Although it sounds overwhelming for hot-weather fare, my companion had no trouble finishing it.

Cinnamon-dusted sopapillas ($2) and an elegant flan ($2.50) were unstuffy endings to a meal that was satisfying -- if hardly the stuff dreams are made of.

La Paz

Where: 18 Market Space, Frederick.

Hours: Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays

to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays,

5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.

Credit cards: MC, V.

Features: Mexican food.

Non-smoking section?: Yes.

Call: (301) 694-8980.

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