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Restaurant Review - Party line

The buffet's the way to go at uneven La Feria

It dawns on me, through my New Year's Day haze, only when a crowd of servers begins to encircle our table: Why the hell did I bring vegetarians to a Buford Highway Mexican restaurant that serves bull testicles, grilled quail and beef tongue? When the first earnest woman assigned to take our order approaches the table, my friends casually inquire if the refried beans are cooked with lard.

Blank stare. Confused batting of the eyelashes. We try out our refried Spanish on her: "Refritos cocinar con puerco?" She glances at the ceiling for a moment as if to ask God to help her understand the gringos, then looks over her shoulders and calls for assistance in Spanish. Another server arrives. Then another. It takes a fourth person to confidently announce in English, "No! The beans are not cooked with meat." Grateful nods and smiles all around.

Most of the customers at La Feria don't have these kinds of issues. They mosey through the doors of this ex-Denny's (the building's past barely recognizable through the bright orange paint job) and know they're going to get a taste of home in a festive atmosphere. The ceiling, strung with multi-colored crepe swirlies, looks as though a herd of piñatas regurgitated on it. Even the booster chairs have been painted eight shades of bright.

On weekdays, loners and local office workers pop in the restaurant for its lunch buffet. It's seven bucks, and it's quite a spread for all-you-can-eat. Amid bland mounds of ground beef and odd concoctions like spaghetti with ham and cream sauce are some worthy finds. Typically there are two kinds of well-constructed enchiladas — perhaps chicken with a nuanced mole or in red sauce with streaks of cheese melted on top. I'm also partial to the barbacoa de res, long simmered beef in a zesty barbecue-ish sauce that makes fine filling for a build-your-own taco.

You'll need to ask your server to bring you the corn tortillas from which to make those tacos, but you'll want to ask for them regardless. They're weighty and nutty — the telltale sign that these babies are made in-house. Well, most of the time. On my last visit, they were the thin, anemic types obviously bought from a supplier. No one I questioned could give me an explanation about why they weren't serving the homemade ones that day. Gringo-itis strikes again.

Fresh or not, the warm corn tortillas are a vast improvement over the tortilla chips, plopped down with salsa, that taste of rancid oil. What a discouraging start to the meal.

On the weekends, the buffet expands and so do the crowds. Large tables sip horchata — the cinnamon-scented rice milk drink — and slurp on fragrant, warming beef and chicken soups retrieved from huge clay pots that sit empty during the week. It's during these busy moments, nursing a margarita and strapping on the feedbag, that La Feria is most enjoyable. The food on the buffet line is worlds more soulful than anything you'd find at a Mexican chain joint.

But the printed menu is a different animal altogether. It's an enormous glossary of starters, soups and meat dishes with varying traditional sauces. Sorting through it can be a confounding experience. First of all, it's astonishingly pricey. Your basic crock of queso fundido, for example, costs $9. There's not a whiff of the ocean to be found anywhere: You'll have to visit La Feria's sister restaurant, Marisqueria 7 Mares, a couple blocks away if you have a yen for seafood. And most of the dishes I try are downright mediocre.

Marinated grilled chicken turns out to be a rubbery mass of flattened breast meat. Pork in a zippy guajillo chile sauce is chewy. Tamales look fetching in their banana leaf wrapping but, once open, are overcooked and dry.

My favorite non-buffet meal thus far is the parrillada La Feria. It's listed as enough to feed dos, but I say trés or even quatros could fill up on this feast. A sizzling platter is placed at the center of the table, piled with robust chunks of grilled steak, chicken, bony goat, pork sausage and sweetbreads. They steam atop a pallet of cactus strips and onions, and are served with sides of watery guacamole and delicious, porcine charros beans. It's $40, but it's a mess of food and you won't have to muddle through the menu's numerous choices.

Besides, half the food you request may be unavailable. The kitchen has an annoying habit of informing servers that a dish is unavailable just minutes before the rest of the food comes out. Doe-eyed servers tiptoe up to the table to let us know sheepishly that chochinita pibil (a Yucatan preparation of pork in banana leaf), chile relleno and migas (breakfast eggs) are unavailable after we ordered them. Perhaps that's a symptom of being open 24 hours a day. The point is, this really isn't a place to try and get ethnic adventurous.

Having said that, though, they do have bull testicles available. I've never indulged in that particular delicacy before. No big whoop — they taste like chicken. Just kidding! They taste more like chicken liver. They're braised to a sproingy texture and sort of remind me of sliced deviled eggs in appearance.

Grossed out? Stick to the buffet, you'll be happier.

bill.addison@creativeloafing.com



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