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

Funny 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.

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.

In keeping with this culinary dress code, chips and salsa surrender to a basket of bread with a tiny ramekin of whipped butter. On our second visit, two boats of salsa--one bright green and made of tomatillos, the other the color of an oil change and made from chipotle--were deposited on the table.

But while the appetizers didn't grip us with haute sophistication, the entrées did. Here, the food seemed smoother, sexier, and more exciting--except for those flaws, which wavered like a frayed seam, deflating the elegance of the meal. On one visit it was a place setting with a fork tine crusted in green--maybe a dribble of guacamole petrified in the dishwasher. On another, it was a badly chipped plate.

Certain of the entrées wore a little thin as well, like the mole de tamarindo Don Librix ($13.50). A 19th-century family recipe of Mexican celebrity Librado Jimenez, this dish is a chicken breast robed in a smooth, silky mole made from tamarind fruit and peppers. Its gentle piquancy and textural grip filled this refined black liquid drapery with dazzle. But the plump breast was dry, like a puffed slice of fiberboard.

One of the more exotic particulars in Mexican cuisine is huitlacoche, or cuitlacoche, or corn smut. It's sort of like a fungal corn ear infection. This smut is used in sauces, sautés, and soups and laces foods with a sweet, sweaty flavor. Shrimp huitlacoche ($20) turned this exotic parasite into a silky black sauce matched with five leathery shrimp. A fork was not sufficient to sever the flesh into chewable segments, and lots of chewing is what these need.

But then there were menu entries that were simply and undeniably stellar. Just how good didn't penetrate my skull until days later. On our first visit, I couldn't hack more than a few tiny bites of the pescado de la fogata ($18.50), a thin piece of sea bass marinated in adobo sauce and then broiled. Bad pacing was the reason. I was far too rambunctious in my attempts to decode the appetizer platter to extort the full range of pleasures from this dish. So I had it boxed in a Styrofoam clamshell.

And there it was, four days later, nuked and glistening, sauced the color of a freshly erected cedar fence. The fish was so freshly firm and rich in buttery succulence, it was hard to believe that it had spent days aging in the refrigerator.

Just as in Cancun (and maybe everywhere else that has a La Valentina), the interior of this restaurant is brashly festive with pots painted as loud as reef fish, a vestibule flanked with steps that look like they were jack-hammered out of a swimming pool, and walls of river stone. Paintings and sculptures are everywhere, and they have price tags, perhaps to help defray the costs of the desolate dining room.

Which shouldn't be that way, especially when things like salmon in squash-blossom sauce can be experienced ($19.75). This delicious piece of flesh, gently laminated in its murky yellow sauce, wavered elegantly between sweet and tangy.

Desserts wavered too. Bola blanco y negro ($5), an intriguing ball of vanilla ice cream waxed in a brittle chocolate mousse powdered with cocoa, was tasty--rich yet refreshing. But the flan custard ($4) was coarse instead of smooth, elegant, and gentle.

Which made it not unlike the service, which was riddled with sharpness and inconsistencies. The passage of 20 minutes seemed standard before menus are dispersed. And each service gesture is executed with tones that are obligatory, strained, and perfunctory, instead of gracious or exuberantly festive, as the decor might imply.

There's a reason this place is empty, and it most likely isn't the food. And it certainly isn't the crocodiles.


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