8330 King St.
$9-$10 per plate
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, noon to 11 p.m. Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday
I do my best to mix up the types of restaurants I visit and their areas across town, but sometimes I have a culinary blind spot and realize that I’ve missed trying a particular cuisine in a while. When it dawned on me that I hadn’t reviewed a Mexican restaurant in some time, I promptly headed to South Anchorage to rectify that oversight.
La Mex is one of Anchorage’s more successful and well-established Mexican eateries, with two locations near Dimond Boulevard and in Spenard; its downtown location, in the space now occupied by Platinum Jaxx, closed several years ago. While the Spenard restaurant is slightly closer to the station, the one on King Street offers significantly more parking and seating so I chose to stop there to try the chain out.
The King Street location offers an open central dining area, with a raised ceiling ringed by skylights, surrounded by more intimate booths and alcoves to offer a visitors a variety of seating arrangements. Hanging baskets feature prominently in the dining area’s décor, with a lively mix of Mexican music and observation windows to watch the restaurant’s tortilla maker in action; it wasn’t running during my lunch visit on a quiet Thursday, but even dormant it drew several second glances from passing kids.
When I sat down for lunch, I wasn’t automatically given a basket of tortilla chips and salsa as La Mex usually serves at dinner, but I was offered one shortly after I arrived -- a useful revision for lunch which I appreciated, since not everybody necessarily wants them with such a light meal. The lunch menu, served until 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, is similarly heavy on choice but lighter on portions, with everything between $8.75 and $10. While the dinner menu is also available if you’re hungry, I ordered one of a dozen $10 lunch specials, a “soup and salad combo” that pairs a cup of tortilla soup with a lunch-sized taco salad containing your choice of meat. The service was fast, and I was eating perhaps 10 minutes after I ordered.
The tortilla soup, the first item on my plate I went for, is one of La Mex’s more enticing creations: a modestly spicy broth containing chicken, tomatoes, onions, Monterey Jack cheddar and cilantro to sublime effect. The cheese and meat lend weight to the dish without making it an overpowering stew, and the generous amount of veggies mixed in give it a salsa-like kick that lingers on the tongue; I felt no qualms whatsoever about quietly picking up my cup once I’d dredged up all of the soup’s contents to drink what was left of the broth, savoring the last bits of spice left at the bottom.
The main cutback to be seen on my plate was the “lunch-sized” taco salad, which provoked a moment of amusement when I first saw it. In lieu of the usual intimidating tortilla bowl brimming with lettuce, tomato, olives, salsa and trimmings atop a core of meat, the special’s version comes in a much smaller shell and also has fewer ingredients, essentially some lettuce with a few scoops of meat, topped off with a dollop of sour cream and a bit of shredded cheddar. After I started assessing how to eat it with a fork, however, I began to appreciate the design, instead picking it up off the plate and eating it like a tart, the shredded beef I’d chosen much more moist and tasty than the usual ground beef I’ve previously chosen. While it wasn’t a meal in itself, it wasn’t meant to be precisely because it wasn’t served alone.
Looking back through past Lunchbox entries, my last Mexican meals were eaten during a February stop at Vallartas Mexican Restaurant and a June visit to Taco-Loco’s deli, and La Mex makes me think it’s been entirely too long. There aren’t too many quick venues that officially specialize in the cuisine, but the rapid service I saw is a reminder that sit-down doesn’t necessarily mean slow. Combine that with the fair prices and quality ingredients, and I’m looking forward to trying out a few more items on that lunch menu.