By Ron Bechtol
Paloma Blanca's old location, inherited from another Mexican restaurant with a long history, was low-ceilinged and cozy, with venerable murals and an intimate bar. The new digs, on the other hand, are multi-leveled, expansive, and cool - almost aloof - with a monochromatic color scheme, minimal decor, and dramatic lighting. There are extensive outdoor dining areas, and private dining spaces separated by impressive doors. And then there's the bar: clubby, cushy, and reeking of leather and expectations.
The old menu has been slipped into this finery without a whisper - very Cinderella. If you liked the nachos rancheros before, you'll still find them here. Ditto the tacos al pastor, the tostadas de ceviche, and the quesadilla al carbon - all very much street or beach food that, if you think about it too much, seems oddly out of place. The taquitos de puerco were terrific, the tasty trio making a meal for most reasonable people. The single quesadilla al carbon, on the other hand, was crisp and appealing, but seriously short on the carnitas. They should have been better balanced with the melted, white cheese and the tomato-biased pico that filled the folded, corn tortilla. The twin tostadas de ceviche fell somewhere in the middle - very generous and with an elegant amount of shrimp, but very heavy on tomato and bathed in a sauce that smacked of the sweetness of ketchup.
The margaritas being a salient feature of the old bar, it was only reasonable that they should be sampled in the far fancier milieu. Some names may have changed here - maybe even some recipes, for that matter. You can get, for example, a Heights marg with Beauchant orange liqueur and your choice of several premium tequilas. The very similar '09 model comes exclusively with Patron and Grand Marnier, and it seems sweeter and more influenced by orange. I preferred the Heights (with Herradura reposado), my dining companion the '09. We added more lime to each, and everybody went home happy - though much later.
On each visit, the service was almost unnaturally swift, just short of a turn-the-tables tone. Better brisk than blasé, however. I have only one additional service comment: Cut out the touchy part. Waiters should be seen (and occasionally heard) but not felt.
Among other old favorites on the menu are the always-dependable enchiladas de la casa, the chicken "Divorciadas" with "irreconcilable " rice separating the verde from the ranchera sauces. The enchiladas San Miguel, both filled and topped with mushrooms in pungent guajillo sauce, may be the winners in this category. They reminded us of the emotive power of simple, earthy ingredients treated with respect - and then garnished with just a little bit of luxe, which in this case was some shredded queso cotijo. When other plates seem to be trying too hard, this is a good touchstone. The white rice with corn and poblano is just thoughtful enough to be interesting in its own right, but not so fancy that it takes over.
Chiles rellenos, a traditional model with beef, potatoes, and white cheese, and a vegetarian version, have long held a place of prominence on Paloma's menu, so it was logical that a relleno should also appear on the new, daily special list. And it's this list that, even more than the margaritas, that is trying to live up to the new setting. The $14.95 price tag bought me a chile relleno de camaron, tomato, corn, and onion one evening - baked, not fried, and topped with melted white cheese. Served opulent and open atop a bed of white rice with more corn and poblano, the package was more than presentable, but it lacked corazon. The baked poblano container was too crisply underdone to be more than just a container. And the shrimp blend was fresh and bright without being especially compelling - it needed a bland ingredient such as cubed potato to play against. Pork con Cacahuate, Pescado Almendrado, and Camarones a la Diabla are among other recent specials, also priced at $14.95.
The tres leches cake that was introduced to San Antonio by Blanca Aldaco, one of the original founders of Paloma Blanca (and no longer associated with the restaurant), remains on the menu, and it has been joined by a chocolate version. Topped with a sawdust of ground nuts and served in a puddle of cold cocoa, this incarnation manages to be both dry, wet, and visually unimpressive - apart from its size. Two of us didn't bother to finish it, something that never would have happened with the original version. Stick to the basics, even if the surroundings suggest putting on airs. •