From the parking lot on a fully developed stretch of Midlothian Turnpike, it's easy to see this was once a restaurant of quite different character a Dunkin' Donuts, in fact. So it's understandable that Nicole had her doubts.
Upon entering, patrons are greeted by an extensive, backlit menu that covers the walls around the service counter. A stoic but pleasant woman is happy to take your order and deliver it to your table. La Palmera also features takeout and an extensive selection of Goya products for you to use in trying to duplicate the dishes at home.
We found our table under a picturesque mural of a sandy, wind-swept beach, which nearly made up for the fluorescent lighting and linoleum floor. And it wasn't long before we were presented with heaping plates of aromatic Latin fare.
The tamales are not to be missed. Sweet corn masa wrapped in corn husks cradles a delectable filling of shredded chicken and spices. Paired with a piquant roja sauce, the tamales are gratifying and an excellent value at $1.92 apiece. You'll want two or three. Likewise, the fried plantain platter, with sour cream and refried black beans ($5.95) makes for a light meal by itself. The plantains are tender and sweet, not flat and dried-out like those you find in many Richmond restaurants.
With options from around the Latin world, you'll be sure to find authentic dishes to your liking. From mojo to rellenos, carne asada to fajitas, this is the best of peasant cuisine fresh ingredients presented simply. The pork chops ($8.95), sautéed with garlic and served with rice and plantains, are a beautiful example. The whole fried tilapia ($10) is another crispy on the outside, tender and flaky within.
There are traditional Mexican dishes, such as tacos ($5.95) and enchiladas ($6.95), alongside the Caribbean and Central American fare. The famed restorative menudo or tripe soup ($10.95), known for its calming influence over severe hangovers, and sopa marinero (fisherman's stew) ($11.95) may seem mistakenly priced. But given the huge portion and quality of ingredients, they're worth every penny. The marinero is brimming with shrimp, clams, mussels and tender chunks of tilapia.
Breakfast is also extremely satisfying. Traditional favorites like huevos rancheros and huevos con jamon ($4.95 each) are ample, to say the least. The Breakfast Burrito ($2.95) will surely keep you going until lunch.
La Palmera doesn't serve alcohol, so you won't be able to pair your entree with a cold cerveza or margarita, but they do offer authentic Goya juices and sodas. And it's important to note that La Palmera only accepts payment in the form of cash or check. So be prepared. Fortunately, a full dinner for two, including appetizers, entrees, beverages, desserts and generous tip, should only set you back about $25.
While cashing out, you'll notice several cylindrical glass jars filled with confections. At 50 cents a pop, you can indulge your sweet tooth with ridiculously rich toasted-coconut macaroons and other treats. As Nicole plucked a delicate meringue cookie from the neatly arranged offerings, she smiled. "Just like the ones we had when I was a kid," she said, and skipped out the door, noticeably lighter in spirit. That's what a little home cooking can do for the soul. SLa Palmera ($$)7701 Midlothian Turnpike
Breakfast, lunch and dinner: Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday 3 to 7 p.m. (Breakfast until 11:30 a. m., MondaySaturday)
Letters to the editor may be sent to: email@example.com