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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 2.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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La Mestiza delivers a good Mexican lunch spot for downtown Madison

Credit:Kristian Knutsen

Downtown Madison is seeing an increasing number of Mexican options for lunch. Taco fiends are set to be well-served near campus, with Taco Heaven opening in the old Le Chardonnay space on West Johnson and another joint going into a storefront on University next to Wando's. Meanwhile, a pair of new restaurants closer to the Capitol are already open. Las Cazuelas fired up its wood-burning oven at Butler Plaza late last year, and was followed last week by La Mestiza, which opened a second Madison location on East Main just off the Square.

Finally, here's a quick, affordable, yet still flavorful Mexican lunch for the downtown crowd.

La Mestiza has taken over a space recently vacated by Subway, transforming a dingy, cramped, and rushed atmosphere into a bright and warm cafe-style environment. A small bar with a half-dozen seats fronts the kitchen area on the left side of the restaurant, with the remainder of the room dominated by a cluster of tables for four and an extended open booth at the back.

The menu is the same as the one at La Mestiza's west side location, starting with the chips and salsa, which are served free when eating in. The former are fried fresh, oftentimes served warm and a good kind of oily. The latter comes in two varieties, a hot salsa roja with a bit of a kick, and a mild salsa verde that's sweet and creamy.

A baker's dozen of dishes and a rotating array of daily specials are on the lunch menu, which overlaps in large part with the appetizers. Leading the way are the satisfying chilaquiles con carne asada (corn tortillas simmered in tomatillo sauce and topped with slices of skirt steak, sour cream, and queso fresco), and an unobtrusive chicken mole enchiladas plate. The tamales, served in-husk, are more filling than they look, and their flavors change daily -- though pollo, pastor, and queso are regulars. The trio de tacos offers a pleasing array of pollo, asada, and pastor, topped appropriately with cilantro and onions and none of that iceberg dreck, but they are thinly supported by only one tortilla (instead of two); tacos can also be ordered a la carte.

Lunch can be ordered to-go, and is served in a styrofoam container. The wait is short, as the staff is prepared to get customers on their way. Chips and salsa are not gratis when ordering carry-out.

The entree menu ups the serving size, and roams farther in terms of chiles and proteins, adding lamb and salmon to the mix; these dishes range in price from $12-16. Vegetarians won't find much on the menu, but there are a few meat-free enchilada selections and appetizers, along with a small array of sides. Dessert options include a tres leches cake, flan, and fried plantains topped with caramelized goat-milk. Weekend diners will also find a brunch menu served from 11 a.m.-3 p.m., which features a couple of the regular dishes (like the chilaquiles and tamales) multiple variations on huevos (such as rancheros, motuleños, and con chorizo), and carnitas. A full Isthmus review of La Mestiza will follow after the restaurant has been open for a decent interval.

The house margarita is made with Tequila Horritos, Grand Torres Orange Liquer, and fresh squeezed lime juice, same as at the original location. It's accompanied on the drinks menu by a sangria, mojito, a large selection of tequilas, and a standard array of cervezas, including Corona, Tecate, Sol, Pacifico, Bohemia, and Negra Modelo. No slurpee machines in sight. On the non-alcoholic side, the restaurant also serves café de olla, a basic trio of aguas (Jamaica, Tamarindo, and Horchata), bottles of Jarritos, and regular fountain soda.

As reliable and affordable as La Mestiza is for lunch, it has an even more appealing happy hour, which runs weekdays from 3-7 p.m. First of all, the apps are half off; this means shrimp ceviche tostadas will cost $4, the trio de tacos for less than $3.50, and an ample bowl of chunky guac for about $2.25. Meanwhile, the price of the house margarita is dropped two dollars to $4, and the cervezas are a buck cheaper at $2.50. Even better, the restaurant plans to offer the same deals from 11 p.m.-1 a.m. for late night noshers within a couple of weeks.

La Mestiza provides a boost to downtown Mexican options, one that will hopefully continue to improve once the taco joints near State Street open. Now all that's needed is a bona fide taqueria and perhaps a taco truck or two bouncing between campus and the Capitol to round out the scene.

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