Sometimes a restaurant is so much fun that the food takes a back seat. Such is the case with L'Encanto D'Lola ("The Charms of Lola"). Anomalously located at the corner of 113th and Lenox in lower Harlem, in an area otherwise devoid of Mexican restaurants, the façade features Lola's visage beaming down, her hair permed tightly on top of her cranium. You'll take an instant liking to her, while wondering if she's any relation to the Lola in the Kinks song. Once inside, find well-spaced tables in a square room with walls painted a garish shade of orange. Limned with bas-reliefs of white gardenias, the straw-thatched stools and chairs seem to have come straight from a bar in a Mexican border town, circa 1960. If you've ever seen Orson Welles' A Touch of Evil, this place could have been a set.
A balladeer in a sports jacket wanders the aisles, stopping at our table to burst into "Besame Mucho." In spite of his caterwaul, the restaurant is blessedly low-noise, so that an audible gasp goes up when the first flaming margarita hits the table. Priced at $9.95, these margaritas come in galleon-size glasses, straight up with ice cubes or frozen. A hollowed-out lime peel bobs on the surface, blue flames licking upward. "What's in the lime peel?" I asked the waiter. "Bacardi 151 proof," was his reply. He then suggested putting out the flames immediately and dumping the rest of the rum into the cocktail. Even without it the margaritas are stupefyingly strong, in flavors such as mango, pineapple, coconut, and a red currant indistinguishable from cherry Kool-Aid.
Lola herself was born in the state of Puebla, Mexico, and passed away a decade ago, according to our waiter; obviously, her legend lives on. But as befits a restaurant in a border town, the menu runs from Mexican regional classics to Mexican-American fare from Texas, California, and the American Southwest. From Tucson comes the chimichanga ($10.99), a deep-fried burrito best filled with the shredded beef called machaca, a Southwestern staple. In shrunken form the chimichanga is also available on one of Lola's combination platters ($13), which also contains a taco and a quesadilla. But don't mistake this for Tex-Mex cooking, because no queso or chili gravy floods the plate, alas!
Rather have a burrito that hasn't been deep-fried? Go straight for the "wet burrito" ($11.99), a specialty of San Francisco's Mission District. It comes with green or red salsa poured over the top, which gets further streaked with thick white crema. A knife and fork are required to eat this sloppy but enjoyable mess. You have your pick of 12 fillings. The strangest is dubbed burrito Poblano, reconfiguring the burrito as if it had been invented in southern Mexico rather than California. This baby bulges with lots of chicken and steak, roasted poblano peppers, guacamole, and Oaxacan cheese, fantasizing a more bountiful fate for the drought-stricken state of Puebla than the one that sent its immigrants here in such numbers over the last two decades.
Regional Mexican dishes abound, too, such as Lola's recipe for chicken enchiladas in a black mole with just a touch of sweetness, four to a plate and carpeted with toasted sesame seeds. Another specialty of the restaurant is carnitas in the style of the state of Michoacán, fried pork tidbits that remain miraculously moist. Perhaps best of all is a starter: queso fundido, the Mexican answer to Swiss fondue, here amplified with chorizo, tomatoes, and diced chiles. Meekly called "melted cheese appetizer" ($7.50), it makes one of the best chip-dips you've ever tasted.
The best deal may be the three overstuffed tacos you get for $8.
Another perfect starter is the tortilla soup, which boasts a mild tomato base and raft of ripe avocado, but little discernible heat. One price you pay for this sort of Mexican establishment — often termed a "margarita mill" — is very little in the way of spiciness. Ask for a bowl of pickled jalapenos, which does the trick nicely. The best deal may be the three overstuffed tacos you get for $8. These can be the double-corn-tortilla soft tacos we've learned to love at the bodega taquerias that have become a major part of the New York dining landscape. But why not go Mexican-American with hard-shell tacos? The same collection of a dozen choices applies, but avoid the ground beef filling, because the cooks simply don't understand it. A Tex-Mex mainstay, it comes completely devoid of seasoning, when it should burst with cumin and garlic.
The exception to the "no Tex-Mex" rule at Lola's is the nachos. These are turned out with great enthusiasm. The dish was invented on the Mexican side of the Texas border in the 1940s by Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya. Send them scurrying in a Southern Mexican direction by specifying chicken tinga as the main topping. This chipotle-based sauce lights up the tortilla chips like a bonfire, which are further improved with copious amounts of crema, pico, monterey jack, and a plain-but-delectable guacamole. The topside is carefully toasted before serving. These nachos are the perfect punctuation to gulps of frozen margarita, and there's no trashier combination of food and drink in Harlem.
Cost: Dinner for two, with two flaming frozen margaritas, one app, and two entrees, $50, including tax but not tip
Sample dishes: Tinga nachos, burrito poblano served “wet,” Lolita’s mole enchiladas, tortilla soup, melted cheese appetizer, hard-shell tacos
What to drink: Mexican Coke, fresh lemonade, Jarritos sodas, margaritas, sangria, Mexican beers
Bonus tip: Beware! For parties of 4 or more an 18% service charge is automatically added. Those drinking more than one flaming margarita are in danger of being hung over the next day.