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Marana Mexican

Some of the area's most unique south-of-the-border food is found on the far northwest side

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As we drove to Marana, we marveled at how much the area has changed: more houses, more businesses, more people. And more restaurants, the majority of them chains.

But then there's La Olla: Small and full of charm, this welcome edition to the far northwest side is the very definition of a modern-day mom-and-pop restaurant.

The dining room sports deep gold and red walls with a little bit of green for an accent. There are plenty of ollas (pots) and other knickknacks hanging about, along with a bar (which seems more for dining than drinking) and about a dozen tables.

We ordered a couple of Mexican beers ($4 each) and an appetizer of empanadas ($7.75) while we figured out exactly what we wanted for entrées.

The service was practically flawless, even though our server was kept hopping with a good-sized party and a steady flow of customers. The chef took our dinner order; the owner cleared the tables and poured the drinks. The server made regular stops, always with a smile on her face. When I ordered my combo plate ($11.95), the chef offered to substitute whatever I wanted in place of another empanada.

The appetizers were a fine example of creativity and care. Two mini-empanadas were beautifully plated atop a barely dressed slaw of lettuce and cilantro, and were then topped with a mild chipotle crema. Inside the little pies were roasted corn nibs, a bit of green chili, some cilantro pesto, manchego cheese and tasty bits of sweet shrimp. The crema added a smooth and savory layer of flavor.

For entrées, we picked that combo plate and John's carne seca burro, served enchilada-style ($10.50), which here means enchilada sauce, sour cream and several slices of creamy avocado.

While the burro was fairly small, it was nonetheless quite tasty. The enchilada sauce was interesting: a little drier and hotter than what's found elsewhere, it still rated a thumbs-up. The carne seca was dried and shredded just so, and proved a nice match to the toppings.

My plate included a fish taco, a cheese enchilada and something called a diablo chico, which was a hot yellow pepper stuffed with shrimp, green onions and several cheeses. The whole thing was wrapped in bacon and then broiled. It was spicy, salty, sweet and creamy all in one bite ... superb. The soft fish taco also popped with texture and taste. There was a little bit of that slaw, a crisp torpedo of white fish, cheese and crema. The enchilada was perhaps the least inspiring thing on the plate, but was fine.

Both dishes came with healthy servings of tasty refried beans; Spanish rice laced with corn; assorted other veggies; and calabacitas. The beans and rice were very good, but I really enjoyed the calabacitas, a simple dish of stewed zucchini, tomatoes, corn and cheese. I could've easily eaten more of it.

Dessert offered some interesting choices, and we opted for "The Xango" ($5.25). The kitchen took vanilla cheesecake, wrapped it in a flour tortilla and then deep-fried it, before dusting it with cinnamon sugar and drizzling chocolate sauce, raspberry sauce and crème anglaise across the top. It was artfully presented on a colorful plate and was surprisingly not overly sweet. This dessert speaks loud and clear about the creativity of the kitchen.

On dinner visit no. 2, we ordered a combo plate for John ($10.50) that included a taco, a cheese enchilada, a tamale of the day, beans, rice and calabacitas; I picked the carne asada plate ($12.95). We also ordered the shrimp cocktail La Olla-style ($8.25), which the waitress said was served a "gazpacho broth." The eight shrimp were a tad mushy, but the "broth" sang of sunny days on the beach in Rocky Point. I'd guess it was salsa that had been finely blended with bits of avocado, tomato and chiles tossed in.

The carnitas tamale was filled with chunks of meat, lightly spiced. It was a perfect size and full of masa flavor. The taco was cooked the in the best way: fried whole, with a ground beef patty stuffed inside.

My carne asada plate came with calabacitas (more cheesy than last time), fresh guacamole, a slice of tamale pie and a flour tortilla. The carne itself was perfect: The not-too-spicy marinade had not all been cooked off during the perfect grilling, meaning the meat was both moist and tender. It had been tossed with chunks of tomato before hitting the grill, which added another layer of flavor; the two small grilled peppers atop it all provided a little heat and a bit of sweet. The tamale pie was topped heavily with cheddar and was perfectly moist. It might've been a tad sweeter, but it was still great.

We got the flan ($4.25) to go. Denser than most, the flan was a nice light end to the meal.

Regrettably, my schedule didn't allow a visit for lunch, which is served Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. With tortas ($6.95), enchilada stacks ($6.95) and chimichanga stacks ($8.95), along with mini cheese rellenos ($5.50) and a dish called the La Olla bowl ($7.95), the lunch menu intrigued me. The last item is Spanish rice and veggies with a choice of three meats (carnitas, carne asada and chipotle chicken) that is all topped with cheese and an Anaheim crema. I will make a point of visiting for lunch someday in the future.

Some may balk at La Olla's prices; they are a bit high compared to other area Mexican joints. But you get plenty of food here—much of it unique. Add in La Olla's sincere hospitality, and those few extra pennies don't matter much.

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