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Review: New Fremont East eatery La Comida justifies its occasionally steep prices with quality Mexican fare

Walking into La Comida the day after it opened, the crowd was a who’s-who of local foodies and connoisseurs of all things new. Hell, even the staff looked familiar. I recognized nearly every one of them from previous jobs at top restaurants. A few weeks later, the scene wasn’t quite as extreme, but there was still plenty of the in-crowd. Downtown clearly has a new hot spot. The question is whether this trendy little Mexican joint justifies a visit from those who aren’t concerned with the flavor of the moment. The answer is yes.

Of course, La Comida should be better than the average downtown startup. Few restaurateurs off The Strip know the business as well as Michael Morton, who owns La Comida with his wife, Jenna. Son of famed Chicago restaurateur Arnie Morton (Morton’s Steakhouse) and brother of Hard Rock founder Peter Morton, he has restaurants in his blood. With The N9NE Group, he brought N9NE Steakhouse and Nove Italiano to The Palms. After his split with the company, he opened La Cave at Wynn Las Vegas. So while La Comida may be a family business, it’s not some rinky-dink, mom-and-pop operation.

To his credit, Morton seems to understand that the Fremont East neighborhood demands a different sensibility than a multimillion-dollar casino. So while La Comida (which takes its name from the staff meal served in restaurants prior to service) is beautifully designed and impeccably clean, it’s also slightly grungy. Guests enter through an alleyway off of Sixth Street to find a room that you can tell was once a laundry facility. It’s been adapted rather than completely rebuilt. The space is open and airy, with a row of doors that open out to the patio area on the sidewalk. And reclaimed tiles, stained glass and antique fixtures are combined in a way to give it an elegant yet distressed look.

While the menu is only two pages, it offers some decent variety. In addition to queso fundido ($11) and guacamole ($9), appetizers include pozole ($6), a tuna tostada ($14) and huevos rancheros ($11). Three ceviches are offered alone ($11-$12) or as a trio ($18). The six types of tacos ($10-$14) include red snapper and sea bass. And the half-dozen house specialties range from shrimp enchiladas ($14) and a chicken burrito ($14) to puerco ahumado (mesquite-smoked pork shoulder with plantain chips, $15). Chips and house salsa are free, but three additional salsas are available for $3 each or $7 for all three — a move that seems a little tacky to me.

On my first visit, I sampled the guacamole and some shrimp tacos, both of which were good but unexceptional. The second time around, we began with costillas en salsa verde (spare ribs with green tomatilla salsa, $13) and an order of street corn ($8). The former were extremely good, although I would have enjoyed a touch more acid to cut through the richness of the meat. The corn, drenched in cotija cheese and chile lime butter, was excellent — some of the best I’ve had in town. Nonetheless, eight bucks for four small half-ears is a bit excessive.

Our entrees were both very good. The huarache, made with refried beans, roasted poblanos and salsa ($11), is a vegetarian-friendly dish that any meat lover will enjoy. (You can add meat, but it’s really not necessary.) But my favorite dish was pollo al horno — a beautifully presented deboned half chicken with roasted poblanos, Mexican squash and onions in a rich, dark achiote sauce ($16). The huge portion of meat was moist and tender, and the sauce was layered with flavors.

The bar boasts an extensive tequila and margarita collection, with fruit-infused margaritas the house specialties. I tried and loved a prickly pear margarita ($13).

While some prices here are a little steep, as a whole they’re not out of line. And don’t be put off by the $20 valet parking fee. It’s waived if you show a receipt from the restaurant.

With the exception of the breakfast and lunch spot Eat, La Comida is probably the best non-casino restaurant downtown. The Mortons have created a quality spot that should continue to shine even after the next new thing steals the spotlight.

LA COMIDA 100 S. Sixth Street, 463-9900. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog, and follow him on Twitter @almancinivegas.