Funny Valentina

The food's OK, but the service leaves a bad taste in your mouth at La Valentina

Cancun is a strange place. It's essentially a stretch of beautiful beach traumatized by canned recreational detritus. Hotels, shoehorned into place, rise and spread like clusters of mushrooms, flaunting architectural garishness that would make a vigorously customized Cadillac blush.

And the beaches themselves, for all of their soft sands and azure seas, are little more than thoroughfares of recreational commerce. Keep your eyes locked too long on the female sunbathers, and you're likely to stub your toe on a huge plastic jug of gasoline. These jugs, planted in little clusters in the sand, are used to juice up the "personal watercraft" parked nearby. These machines incessantly buzz near the shore, generating the sort of peevish mewls that make you wish some crafty package-tour mogul would organize Cancun Ski-Doo skeet shoots.

The backside of the Cancun strip is lapped by a saltwater lagoon. There, you can take a sunset steak-and-lobster dinner cruise on a motorized pirate ship that looks like a replica of the wreck farting bubbles on the bottom of the guppy tank at PetSmart. We eagerly signed up. Opportunities this kitschy don't readily present themselves this far south of Reno. We had our picture taken with a pair of pirates. We drank margaritas from salt-rimmed plastic cups.

Service without a smile: At La Valentina, it isn't the food that's off-putting--it's the waitstaff.
Stephen P. Karlisch
Service without a smile: At La Valentina, it isn't the food that's off-putting--it's the waitstaff.

Details

Lunch:
Monday-Friday
11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Dinner:
Sunday-Thursday
5-10 p.m.
Friday & Saturday
5-11 p.m.

$$$

Closed Location

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And we had good conversations with the ship hands. One strongly urged against parasailing. It's too dangerous, he said. People get killed. Why, a couple of months ago a man broke loose from his tether and slammed into the upper floors of one of the hotels. Winds drove the sailor from the hotel strip to the lagoon, where he landed in a clump of mangroves. Rescue crews found him in the treetops a couple of days later, impaled by branches.

But while we didn't get thrills parasailing, we did get a rush from a crocodile nosing his way out of a mangrove patch. We were at La Valentina restaurant at a table on a creaky wooden deck that reached a few feet over the lagoon. Maybe 15 feet away, the lizard cruised toward us. Our waiter said his name was Eduardo, I think. There were five crocs that frequented the area, said our waiter, each of them named by the staff. Eduardo was the smallest.

We had just finished a huge platter of seafood: lobster, shrimp, snapper, and squid woven through a medley of vegetables. We washed it all down with nutty, rich white Burgundy. Everything on the plate was sweet and plump. The only drawback was the sections of fish--snapper I think--which were a bit dry.

Two women a couple of tables down spied the croc nose and overheard our conversation with the waiter. They told us about a guest at their hotel who took a swim in the lagoon. He did the backstroke into a huge crocodile and had his head promptly clamped by the reptile's jaws, a move that earned the swimmer 135 stitches.

La Valentina was by far the best eating experience we'd had in Cancun, though you might be thinking that isn't saying much, as pirate ships are rarely repositories of culinary excellence. But everything here came together. In light of this, it's amazing how empty this restaurant was. A couple here, a family of five there, a half-dozen people in the bar--that's it.

Which is how the huge 300-seat Dallas La Valentina space is--a cavernous expanse famished for diners. On a Friday evening during the prime dinner hour, we ate among acres of empty tables. The mariachi band was running out of places to roam after just a few bars. This is in sharp contrast to the crush La Valentina generated after opening in 1996 as Dallas diners enthusiastically embraced its menu of "haute Mexican cuisine," and "nouvelle Azteca." Of course, the gloss of the new quickly dulls in Dallas, and when summer heat is stirred in, dining populations tend to thin. But why is this place such an echo chamber?

It can't be the food, for while it does have a few flaws, much of it is rampant with pleasure. Service? Here bugs can be found. Servers persistently push an appetizer sampler platter ($18), and on our first visit we bit. The waiter rapidly and perfunctorily recited the cast, but none of us could decipher what he was saying. It wasn't English, and it wasn't Spanish. It sounded more like irritated Yiddish. So we asked for a rerun, which we got with a slight air of exasperation.

Anyway, as best I can gather from nibbling and cross-referencing, the platter contained vivid panuchos yucatecos, masa shells meticulously stuffed with chicken and shreds of red cabbage, peppers and onion; salbutes itzama, curled chalupas cupping chicken and onion; sweet quesadillas de la negra Naomi, corn and black-bean tortillas filled with crab; and the smoothly sweet quesadillas azules, blue corn folds stuffed with squash blossoms and Oaxaca string cheese. There were a couple of other things, versions of taquitos, that weren't as successful.

La Valentina's mission is to drape Mexican cuisine in sophistication. To craft the menu when the first La Valentina opened in 1993 in Mexico City (additional locations are in Ixtapa, Mexico, and in Lisbon, Portugal), the owners invited a few of Mexico's most prominent families and chefs to submit their favorite traditional recipes. The menu appears to be little changed since it hit Dallas.

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