Continuing my adventures on the third floor of the new Santa Monica Place, I had lunch at La Sandía Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar (which means “watermelon” in Spanish). This restaurant is part of a chain owned by Richard Sandoval that includes about 10 restaurants located from the east coast to the west coast, from Denver to Scottsdale; it’s truly international as there are also three in Mexico, one in Dubai and one in Qatar. He also owns another restaurant in Santa Monica Place: Zengo.

Although I don’t care for the noisy little front patio, once you step inside into the open, Mexican-style courtyard with lots of space and attractive features you will find yourself in a beautiful restaurant. As you would expect from someone with restaurants so widely disbursed, the wait staff is extremely well trained, and part of the training must be to be friendly and warm to customers.

Altogether, there are about 40 items to choose from on the menu, including just about anything that you would expect to see in a Mexican restaurant. But the preparation is superior here. The flavors seem more characteristic of the product, not drowned by sauces, and not deadened by too much tortilla wrap. The smoked shredded beef in the barbacoa enchilada is lean, yet moist and flavorful. The chile relleno is battered just right.

So while the menu’s offerings are the expected Mexican dishes such as chile relleno, carnitas, enchiladas, tacos and guacamole, the recipes’ preparation is more creative. Just about every table ordered the “prepared tableside” guacamole. Although not really prepared tableside, it’s prepared in the kitchen and mixed at the table, in very attractive stone pots, with hot sauce on the side for those interested. The only guacamole I’ve had that’s as good was at the Hamlet Gardens in Westwood, but since it’s closed, this is now it.

Juliana Roman, the general manager, is right there watching over things, and it seems to be a very smooth operation, well worth a visit. But check your credit card balance before you go. By the time you have a tequila drink to enter into the mood, an $8 entrée, an $18 main course, and a couple of beers to wash it all down, you can run up a $40 bill pretty quickly. But then you can order any one (or two) of seven listed desserts at only $3 each and come away thinking that you’ve gotten quite a bargain. The desserts are authentic and delicious. In fact, that may be one good way to take advantage of this place: a couple of drinks, an order of guacamole, and a dessert. What a bargain!

Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at mervynhecht@yahoo.com.

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