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Pretty Ain't Enough

When style eats substance.

The shrimp quesadilla -- an open-faced presentation with adobo-marinated grilled shrimp, greens, cheese and cilantro pesto all mounted atop a crisp tortilla -- is an easy layup for the crew on a busy shift. Pull the shrimp out of the marinade, drag 'em across the grill, hand 'em off to the garde-manger man who dresses up pre-fried tortillas out of his cold table, and bang: printer to rail in about a minute flat. The tampiqueña comes with a simply dressed nopalito salad and a side of chile poblano potatoes that are casserole prep: layer of potatoes, layer of cheese, layer of chiles, repeat three times in a hotel pan, throw it in the oven and forget about it until the timer goes off. A brain-dead prep cook, half-blind from a hangover on a Saturday morning, could probably knock out five pans of this in less than an hour: a heat-to-serve side requiring only a quick flash under the broiler as the orders come in.

As a chef, I can't help but be impressed by this menu from an organizational and force-disposition standpoint. Almost every plate is a work of genius -- an absolutely rock-solid, time-tested, unfuckupable testament to the concept of sacrificing a little quality for a lot of consistency, both on the table and in the account books. Mexican coleslaw is a common side here, and coleslaw is a chef's food-cost wet dream, since cabbage costs almost nothing and fills a plate just as well as the more expensive lettuces. Every one of the salads is constructed out of pieces of other plates; this is the perfect way to move stock before it gets old. And as a display of pure, meat-hook businessman smarts, the Veracruz-style red snapper is brilliant. The pan-roasted filet is dressed in a strong, Italian-influenced sauce of capers, tomatoes and olives, served with a goat-cheese-stuffed Anaheim pepper that's sorta like a relleno (but not really) and sorta like a stuffed Spanish piquillo (but not really) and tastes like nothing so much as the exact sum of its constituent parts. Snapper is a very gently flavored fish and very forgivable. It takes the heat well, isn't too fragile, can be screwed with like chicken and will still love you in the morning. To then top such a fish with an astringent, powerfully flavored sauce of capers and olives through which no mistake, no matter how terrible, can possibly be tasted is like taking an already virtually indestructible fish and dressing it in a bulletproof vest.

Trouble is, though, I'm not a chef anymore. And what might once have made me respect a guy for his smarts now makes me disdain him for his detachment and those parts of the dining experience that are just too cold-blooded and calculating to be ignored. For example, the tacos are very well-presented -- sizzling on stone platters and all deconstructed for the presumed enjoyment of customers who'd like to assemble them their own way. But really, the deconstruction is just a mean way to make a little food look like a lot of food, and the prices are unconscionable: $14.50 for carne asada -- plus an extra buck if you ask for melted cheese -- which comes out to about five bucks a taco when all is said and done. And the one item that does seem like a bargain, the $19.95 seafood mariscada -- a collection of shrimp, little bay scallops and mussels over soft cilantro rice and drizzled with a strong, sweet/hot achiote and coconut sauce -- is even more worrisome, since mussels appear nowhere else on La Sandía's fairly substantial board. When I put in my order, I couldn't help but wonder how long those shellfish had been sitting around. Still, the sauce was so strong it could've hidden any number of sins.

La Sandía looks lovely, but you can't eat good looks.
Mark Manger
La Sandía looks lovely, but you can't eat good looks.

Location Info

Map

La Sandia

8340 Northfield Blvd., Unit 1690
Denver, CO 80238

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: East Denver

La Sandia

8419 Park Meadows Center Drive
Littleton, CO 80124

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs

Details

8340 East 49th Avenue
303-373-9100
www.modernmexican.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Queso fundido: $6.95
Shrimp quesadilla: $10.95
Asada tacos: $14.50
Tampiqueña: $22.95
Red snapper: $22.95

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Most of La Sandía's flaws are more obvious. Service is friendly, but the upsells and constant exhortations to eat more get annoying fast. I've been charged for drinks that never arrived, sides I never ordered. The free chips and salsa are nice, but being charged an extra dollar by the bar for having my Pacífico served as a michelada, with lime, over ice and in a salted glass? That's ridiculous.

At the end of every one of my meals here, I felt a hollowness that no number of overpriced tacos was ever going to fill. At best, this restaurant is a secondhand translation of one chef's vision of "Modern Mexican Cuisine" -- the culinary equivalent of a Matisse print bought at a mall poster shop, a garage-band cover of Let It Bleed. While I understand that this is all part of the deal that a chef makes with the devil when he goes big-time and international, that doesn't mean I have to like it.

La Sandía has its place. It serves its purpose. But Sandoval's place is not my place, his purpose not my purpose. He has made a beautiful restaurant, but in this case -- as in all cases -- pretty ain't enough.

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