Odd Forsaken 

What's atmosphere got to do with it?

click to enlarge food33_plaza_200.jpg

Plaza Mexico is something of a curiosity. Located in the former setting of the short-lived euro-fusion bistro Cirrus, this middle-of-the-road, south-of-the-border joint offers little to differentiate it from any number of Mexican joints around the region save a unique incongruity of atmosphere and cuisine.

The new owners haven't changed a single aspect of the icy minimalist blue-and-white motif meant to evoke the lightness of high-altitude wisps of cloud — a characteristic diametrically at odds with the bland heaviness of the ubiquitous refried beans, “Spanish” rice and single-digit prices.

Contrary to a prevalent Richmond myth, there's good Mexican to be had in the vicinity.  Almost without exception, it's housed in buildings that offer all the ambiance of a truck stop (La Milpa on Hull Street Road) or a Dunkin' Donuts (La Palmera on Midlothian), almost defying you to dine there. Recently a few joints have sprung up to offer what Baja Bean Co. in the Fan used to do reasonably well: a setting that embraces the all-American bar-and-grill concept (Viva Mexico on Cary Street) and leans toward California rather than the YucatA­n for culinary guidance (see the impending opening of Aztek Grill in Shockoe Bottom).

And then there's Plaza Mexico.

It's not quite as post-modern as the front end of the pink Cadillac on the wall of what used to be a '50s-themed diner (River City Diner, now at 17th Street) turned Lebanese cafAc and hookah bar (Bubbling, in the Bottom). But the contrast of absolutely average enchiladas and burritos with the glowing, cubic blue-glass shelves of the top-shelf martini bar of the failed bistro and the significance of the drop in price point may be a sign of the culinary business times.

When first confronted with a basket of still-warm tortilla chips and a thin salsa obviously from canned tomatoes and a side of ranch (which is a sin, by the way), I think, “Oh, yes, I've been to this joint a million times in a million places.” But I never thought I'd crave the requisite piAñata parrots, the red, green and white walls, the Tijuana Brass and the diffused light on rows of dusty bottles behind a crowded bar. That is, until I recall eating a beautifully seared lamb chop over currant-studded quinoa at this same table. A chill goes down my spine. Why does the sight of platters covered in melted cheese and roja sauce in the sleek, mod setting evoke such a strong reaction? I guess it's because I'm a huge fan of integrated design principles and a sense of purpose being communicated in the experience of dining, while this is akin to eating SpaghettiOs from fine china with a silver spoon.

Overall the food is OK, if that means passable and sating of one's hunger. The chile Colorado with chunks of stewed beef and the sizzling veggie fajitas are both good, in fact, but nothing I can't get on the patio at La Bamba (18th & Franklin) with a whole courtyard to myself.

When our waiter, apparently taking advantage of his only table being occupied with our entrAces, settles down at an adjacent table and turns on the TV, I'm as surprised as the actress in the Univision telenovela who seems to find out (at a very high volume) that Carlos has been cheating all along. I'm not really sure where I am or what I'm doing here. Am I interrupting this guy's “stories”? Do the owners think this is working? Will this joint even be here in a week?

Perhaps more than anything else, what a restaurant is capable of producing is a strong and distinct sense of place. Who hasn't been transported by the synergy of thoughtful lighting, evocative music, welcoming gestures and the tangible comforts of a pumping kitchen and fully stocked bar? Plaza Mexico is a confused space that needs to embrace a sense of what it wants to be. Bring on the dancing piAñatas and the mariachis, please. Which is a sentence I thought I'd never write. S

Plaza Mexico ($)
1731 W. Main St.
Lunch and dinner daily: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Wheelchair accessible

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