Our assignment bewildered us at first: Go to Lista's, one of the area's best-known Mexican restaurants, and try the non-Mexican food. Go figure, we thought, until a friend mentioned that she had heard that the restaurant was serving more non-Mexican food.
Fans of Lista's Mexican fare can relax. It was pretty challenging to find much outside the enchilada, flauta and quesadilla food groups; even dishes like steak and ribs come with Southwestern sides like rice and beans.
Lista's is a cheerful place, with plenty of bustle. It is decorated with strings of colored lights, clusters of hot red peppers, lacy punched-tin lanterns and colorful carvings. Many tables boast great waterfront views. Unfortunately, we found the sight of tugboats in the harbor far more appealing than any of the food we tried, Mexican or otherwise.
One entree, red pepper pasta with vegetables and grilled chicken, sounded good but was a jumble of overcooked, ordinary ingredients. Nana Kline's crab cakes were enormous but totally bland. We could see the crab meat but we couldn't taste it.
A third entree, shrimp al ajo, came highly recommended by our waiter. Could this be because, at $15, it is one of the most expensive dishes on the menu? There wasn't much to recommend the shrimp, which was overdressed and overwhelmed by a "sauce" of olive oil and vegetables.
On the positive side, a hot and spicy chipotle pepper chicken and shrimp dish (Mexican) pleased the person who ordered it.
On a subsequent visit, we went for the meats. A "hand-cut" steak, served flame-broiled, was cooked rare as specified, but it had more gristle and less flavor than we like. A rack of ribs, which arrived in a portion large enough to satisfy Fred Flintstone, was tastier, but too stringy for us.
Appetizers ranged from tough, oversized chicken fingers (more the size of breasts or thighs) to a Greek salad, which apparently got its name from the jumbo chunks of feta cheese mixed in with the lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. At $9, it's no bargain. Garlic shrimp, like the shrimp al ajo, were swimming in oil.
We fared better with Mexican selections such as hot, hot pork green chili, and taquitos, corn tortillas filled with pulled beef and served with guacamole, tomatoes, cheese and sour cream.
The desserts, standard, made-elsewhere choices such as triple chocolate mousse, bread pudding and cheesecake, didn't tempt us, but we tried some anyway. Flan, the traditional Mexican custard, tasted -- not unpleasantly -- like recycled cheesecake. Kahlua diablo, a dense chocolate cake, was overwhelmed by icing drenched in the coffee-flavored liqueur. If you like to get drunk on dessert, this one's for you.
Sometimes, we crave Mexican food like you wouldn't believe. Most of our friends feel the same way, and it must be a yen for fajitas, burritos or chili that keeps Lista's packing the crowds in, even on weekdays.
We haven't had most of the restaurant's traditional Mexican fare in several years, but we'd still have to recommend it over the disappointing new selections that we tried.
1637 Thames St..
Hours: Open for lunch Mondays to Fridays, for dinner every night
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Appetizers $3.50 to $8.99; entrees $8.50 to $19.95
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *
Pub Date: 04/27/00