Lupita’s Comida Mexicana is love at first bite
By Erica Wayne 05/30/2013
I t sometimes seems as if almost every commercial street corner in every community in our country sports a mini-mall with pizza joints, doughnut palaces, chicken take-outs, Asian rice-bowl eateries and, increasingly, sushi emporia shuffled in between Laundromats, convenience/liquor stores and check-cashing establishments. And, sometimes, you can find a small Mexican restaurant as well.
Over the years, I’ve tended to ignore these little storefronts in favor of local landmarks like Mijares, El Cholo, Margaritas, El Portal and the like (especially the ones with full liquor licenses), or restaurants with more unusual menus, for instance, the late and sorely missed Merida, Babita’s and La Cabinita. So I have to confess, it wasn’t until Groupon offered a 50 percent off deal that I set foot in Lupita’s, even though it’s walking distance to my home, tucked away in the cluster of shops on the northeast corner of Colorado and Sierra Madre boulevards, behind Plate 38.
Lupita’s interior is small, with five tan leatherette booths of varying size lining the walls and a few tables in the central space. Its décor is cheery, with terra cotta tile flooring, small landscapes dotting the chocolate and gold walls and a couple of hanging spider plants. The staff is welcoming. Immediately upon being seated, we were presented with warm chips and two dips, a (too) mild pico de gallo and a piquant tomatillo salsa. Soft Mexican music forms a pleasant backdrop.
Lupita’s hides its light under the proverbial bushel basket despite an impressive Technicolor Web site featuring not only its menu, but a full history of Pasadena and a panorama of artistic food pictures guaranteed to instill immediate and extreme longing. But click on “About Us” and nothing happens: no bio, no genealogy, no nothing. Just the same glorious food loop circulating endlessly above a notation to stand by for “your Lupita’s coming soon” printed over a photo of incredibly fetching chicken fajitas.
Well, let the story of how the restaurant came into existence remain a secret. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care about its origins as long as the chef can continue to make a chile relleno ($4.50) as fine as the one my friend and I shared a couple of weeks back. Does the word cloud suffice to explain our ecstasy? One of the truest tests of a Mexican kitchen is the lightness of the batter swaddling a deep-fried, cheese-filled pepper. Lupita’s had us at first bite.
And then there were the fish and shrimp tacos ($3.95 apiece or $9.50 for two with rice and beans). You can order the fish — which tasted like tilapia — grilled, but I wouldn’t. Crisp-fried is much better. The large shrimp are better grilled IMHO. Both tacos are generously sized, with double soft corn shells and a traditional Baja-style slaw topping of cabbage, chopped tomato, green onion and cilantro, a zesty mayonnaise-based dressing and a couple of lime wedges.
And, speaking of shrimp, the camarones al mojo de ajo ($12.99) is a magnificent dish — six tender jumbo beauties drowning in fragrant garlic butter with an extra cup of the stuff for dipping, pouring over rice or, possibly, drinking — yes, it is that good! The beans and rice are standard fare (unfortunately, Lupita’s doesn’t have black beans on the menu), but the shrimp are truly special.
The menu’s seafood section is one of the restaurant’s largest — seven shrimp-based dishes (e.g., tampico and rancheros, each $12.99) and three with tilapia, including mojarra (the entire fish fried or grilled with rice and beans — $9.99). Lupita’s also serves seafood cocktails of shrimp, abalone or mixed seafood ($9.99-$11.99), seafood tostadas ($6.25-$11.95) and two seafood soups (fish or shrimp — each $11.25).
There’s a menu section of platillos caseros (home-style dishes) featuring items like chalupa toluca, chilaquiles con pollo and enchiladas suisas (each $8.95), pollo sonorense (with a sauce of tomatillos, onions and garlic — $11.95) and plato de lengua (beef tongue sautéed in tomatillo sauce — $12.95). Also featured in this section are two must-try dishes: enchilada moreliana — $8.95 (Morelia, the capital of Michoacán, is famous for chicken and potato enchiladas steeped in rich, dark red, slow-burning guajilla chili sauce) and arroz con pollo (with chicken sautéed in two different sauces — $12.25). We’re definitely including both in our next Lupita’s meal.
In addition to the printed menu, Lupita’s has a small board above the open kitchen chalked with daily specials. When we visited, mole and bistecitos (Mexican beef stew) were each featured for $10.95. So were flan and hot chocolate (without prices).
For such a tiny place, Lupita’s kitchen turns out quite a large array of way better than average south-of-the-border fare. And the 92 Yelpers who’ve critiqued it in the past few years have given it an average of four stars. I’m sure diner satisfaction accounts for Lupita’s being in business for more than 12 years. I’m just sorry it took me so long to discover it.
2383 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
Beer and wine/