Carla Meyer

At Oak Park’s La Venadita taqueria, service, value lag behind food

The taqueria’s margarita has tequila blanco, lime, agave and Cointreau.
The taqueria’s margarita has tequila blanco, lime, agave and Cointreau. rbenton@sacbee.com

La Venadita, at 3 months old, probably would be more successful as part of one of those “best of summer” food and drink roundups than as subject of a full dining review.

The strongest items at La Venadita, a light-filled, hacienda-pink-walled taqueria in a renovated former butcher shop in Oak Park, are good enough to inspire visits just for them. And they’re all so summery.

Got a hankering for a margarita? It’s hard to find one that balances tang, sweetness and boozy bite as well as La Venadita’s rocks version with tequila blanco, lime, agave and Cointreau.

La Venadita’s gazpacho holds Carolina gold tomatoes salted just enough to highlight their sweetness and acidity and blended near-smooth. Fresh chunks of avocado dot the cold soup.

The taqueria also lightens that known heavy of Mexican-menu archetypes, the chile relleno, into something appropriate for the hot season. A roasted, unbattered poblano pepper contains sweet corn, zucchini, red onion and a melted mozzarella-jack cheese blend. The stuffed, steamed pepper rests on a tomatillo-guajillo sauce that adds depth and spark to all it touches.

Also making the seasonal cut, now that we’ve rounded into August, and the pressures of swimsuit season ease, is corn and zucchini pudding. Rich with eggs and cream, hefty on the fork and yet light on the tongue, it’s La Venadita’s best bargain, at $3.

Were this a breezy “best of” list, we could helicopter in, mention the tastiest items, bargain pudding and how nice it is La Venadita co-owner Tom Schnetz is investing in his hometown after partnering in a string of successful Bay Area Mexican restaurants, before helicoptering out. We would not need to address the items at the eatery – owned by Schnecht and his brother, David, also partners in the 1990s Sacramento cafe Marshall Grounds – that are not as tasty. Or how hardly anything at La Venadita, aside from the pudding, is a bargain.

But this is a full review, based on three visits. So we will point out how La Venadita’s delicious relleno came on a combination plate (available after 5 p.m.) with merely serviceable black beans and rice that tasted as if it sat on a stove too long, for $12. A dollar more would buy you a two-relleno combination plate at midtown Sacramento’s Tres Hermanas. Sure, Tres Hermanas’ fried, cheese-laden rellenos lack the nuance of their Venadita counterpart. But they, and the rice and beans accompanying them, consistently satisfy and also come with salad and free chips and salsa.

Plus, Tres Hermanas is full service, whereas La Venadita decidedly is not. Decidedly because a weekday lunch-hour visit at La Venadita can mean a long wait on line to order before fetching one’s own utensils, water and Tapatío bottle – the place’s only complimentary condiment.

When we visited at 12:30 on a recent weekday, the line ran five deep, yet only one of two registers at the counter was being used. No one came out to take our order while we were on line, as happens at Magpie Cafe and OBO’ Italian Table & Bar. Once we reached the counter, the actual ordering and paying process also took unusually long. The counter person was friendly but also seemed new to the restaurant game.

Somewhere in there our order had been submitted, though, because we barely had time to gather forks and Tapatío before our food arrived.

Though actual elapsed time between entry and food arrival isn’t long, there is a strong likelihood of frustration within it. It can come, for instance, from needing to return to that slow-moving line to order the $2 chips-and-salsa plate, after noticing salsa is not gratis. The regrets piled on once we saw the puny size of the cups holding green and red salsa, which tasted, respectively, earthy and tangy and of too much chili powder and sugar.

We had tried to avoid a line during a subsequent dinner visit by sitting at the bar, which – unusual for a taqueria – serves liquor along beer and wine. The bar is full service during dinner, Schnetz said. But the night of our attempt, the bartender – though like all La Venadita service staff very friendly – did not seem trained to anticipate our dining needs. We had to grab our own water and utensils.

Plenty of local counter-service places charge prices comparable to La Venadita’s. But there are fewer service lapses at those places, thus preventing one’s brain from turning into a calculator as it does here. For example, after waiting too long on line, twice, items such as a $6.50 ice-cream scoop-size serving of fresh but cilantro-heavy guacamole, served with far too many chips for its size, seemed at least $1 too expensive.

Pricing of tacos – soul of any taqueria – seems right on, however. These tacos don’t all taste great, but they’re all full of fresh, interesting ingredients and served on flawless corn tortillas from Sacramento’s La Esperanza bakery. Slightly sweet, these tortillas are light yet substantial enough to maintain their integrity and flavor under a host of ingredients.

The excellent “vampiro” taco challenges the tortillas most, its ranchera sauce creating a sea of red atop two of them. This taco is delightfully tomato-forward, brightness emerging as its most prominent quality despite rich competition from the butter within the ranchera sauce and the al pastor pork the sauce covers.

Pico de gallo offsets the fat in the carnitas taco, which offers tender, slow-roasted pork and the only fried shell on the eight-taco list. The pollo taco holds wonderful, plentiful sweet-spicy anchiote chicken pinged by pickled red onion and soothed by cilantro.

The seafood within the fish and shrimp tacos tasted under-seasoned, and the beef in the carne asada taco was dry. Though La Venadita’s albondigas taco intrigued, due to our fondness for the soup, the pork-beef meatballs inside it also were too dry.

La Venadita’s flat-tortilla tostada, though a touch pricey at $6, offers a compelling textural marriage of hard (tortilla), soft (black beans, shredded chicken, queso fresco, crèma) and crunchy (chopped cabbage) as its flavors merge into a slightly tangy, mainly hearty whole.

The tostada looks to be one of the menu’s more static items. Restaurateur/chef Tom Schnetz, who drew from greatest hits from his Bay Area restaurant empire (he recently split those restaurants with his business partner, Schnetz said, partly so he could put more focus on his Sacramento places, including a forthcoming Oak Park hofbrau) in designing La Venadita’s menu, will change other dishes seasonally. The pudding, for instance, will hold sweet-potato purée come fall, after corn’s season ends.

Sweet-potato purée sounds less enticing than corn and zucchini, but Schnetz could put chicken liver in that pudding and I’d try it. The dish’s beauty lay in its cream and egg base, just as La Venadita’s prospects lie in its own impressive foundations.

Though not every taco is a success, they are all ambitious. And although service at the bar is confusing, every drink we tried, including a tart-sweet-floral-spicy Paloma, impressed.

La Venadita also is a highly appealing space once one gets beyond its front-window image of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, in antlers, from the 1946 Kahlo painting for which the restaurant is named. Kahlo’s uni-browed self-iconography, co-opted by the masses in the 1990s, was played out by the time Salma Hayek made the 2002 movie “Frida.”

So there’s that. But otherwise, La Venadita is lovely, with its exposed brick walls, huge picture windows topped by building-original leaded windows and plain but solid wood tables spaced far enough apart for dining and moving about the place to be comfortable experiences.

La Venadita also stands out, among the new businesses attempting to lead a renaissance of long-impoverished Oak Park, in the diversity of its patrons in terms of age, gender and ethnicity.

Though it has some issues to work through, especially in reconciling its prices with its service level, the “bones” of long-term survival – from its tortillas, to its setting to its seemingly wide appeal – are all there.

La Venadita

3501 Third Ave., Sacramento, www.lavenaditasac.com, 916-400-4676

Hours: 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday. 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday

Beverage options: Full bar, with craft cocktails. Beers on draft include Model Especial, Negro Modelo and Track 7. Two red and two white wines.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes

Gluten-free options: Yes

Noise level: Moderate to loud

Overall  1/2

The renovated Oak Park space that holds this casual Mexican restaurant is light-filled and lovely. Ordering can take too long at the counter and prices for some items seem too high for the place’s level of service. But La Venadita’s best dishes, and its margarita, are good enough to merit a visit just for them.

Food  1/2

The gazpacho, corn-and-zucchini pudding and the carnitas, pollo and “vampiro” tacos all are stellar, as is the chile relleno (though the combination plate’s sides are lacking). The seafood in the shrimp and fish tacos tasted under-seasoned and the meatballs in the albondigas taco were too dry.

Service

Very friendly, but the ordering process can be slow.

Value

For a counter-service place where you have to pay for chips and salsa separately, some prices seem too high. But tacos, which come with plentiful, fresh ingredients, seem well-priced at $3.50.

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