In the restaurant business, as in life, the devil is in the details.
Carlota's Authentic Mexican Cuisine at the Foothills Mall—the sister restaurant of the similarly named restaurant in Catalina—is divided into two parts: a spacious bar (which is a spot for live music and karaoke on weekend evenings), and a dining room, which includes a private area and a gift shop. We opted for the dining room on both visits.
There were few patrons in the restaurant on both visits—one a Saturday lunch, the other an early-Friday-night dinner. The dining area is an open space in earth tones with a minimum of decorations (mostly small dolls dressed in fiesta clothing). There are a few tightly packed booths and about a dozen tables. Large windows allow views of the mall; Mexican music filtered in and out while we ate.
Our lunch visit started with chips and salsa being brought to the table. The salsa was fresh and bright with cilantro, and the chips were definitely homemade.
For starters, we decided on a cup of tortilla soup ($5.95). This is one of my favorite dishes; it's a tasty restorative whenever you're feeling down. However, Carlota's version, while pleasant to look at—with plenty of avocado, cheese, tomatoes, chiles and such—tasted weak, lacking the "pow" of a rich chicken broth.
For entrées, we ordered the No. 3 combo plate—a beef tamale, a beef taco and a cheese enchilada, with beans and rice ($9.95)—and the chiles rellenos ($11.95). The staples on the combo plate fell short of expectations; the tamale was a tad dry, and the enchilada could've used more cheese. Thankfully, the chiles fared a bit better. The interesting sauce was bright and full of color—but underneath it all, the chiles were small and weren't filled with enough jack cheese.
We finished off with an unremarkable flan ($4.95): While the custard worked, the caramel sauce was one-note and lacked richness.
During that lunch visit, there were huge gaps of time between courses; the soup alone took forever to arrive. However, the service at dinner was even worse. In fact, the whole dinner experience was so off that it's hard to figure out where to start.
We ordered the carne asada plate ($11.95), the intriguing chiles en nogada ($13.95) and a Tecate to drink ($2). When the chips and salsa were delivered, we noticed that the salsa dish had a huge, glaring chunk missing.
Every few minutes, someone stopped by our table to check on us. Each of the servers, the hostess, the busboys, the manager: "Did you need more water?" "Can we get you anything?" "How's the food?" It got to the point that I didn't want to look up for fear of attracting a crowd; it was intrusive.
Thankfully, the food showed some promise. The carne asada was enjoyable, consisting of a fairly good-sized piece of steak.
Chiles en nogada—poblano peppers stuffed with sweet picadillo and topped with a creamy walnut sauce and bright red pomegranate seeds—is a traditional dish most often associated with Mexican Independence Day, and it celebrates the Mexican flag, with green from the chiles, white from the walnut sauce, and red from pomegranate seeds. Carlota's version is served with a pretty green salad topped with red and green peppers, avocado, onions and such. The problem: The dish was brought to the table without a key element—the pomegranate seeds were missing. The picadillo was sweet and spicy, and the sauce was creamy and rich. However, letting a dish leave the kitchen without a key ingredient that helps define the dish—both visually and flavor-wise—is not a good thing.
We ordered pastel de tres leches ($4.95) for dessert. It was presented beautifully and was tasty—even if the cake held little of that creamy richness that can make this dessert pop. Nonetheless, it ended a strange meal on something of a good note.
Those missing pomegranate seeds speak to the problems we experienced with both of our visits to Carlota's: a serious lack of attention to detail, both in the front of the house and in the back, as well as on the part of management/ownership. After all, a staff is only as good as the training.