Three's a Charm 

From a trio of locations, Las Palmas offers Mexican comfort food for most everyone in St. Louis

A theory: It's possible to judge the quality of the food at a Mexican restaurant by the presence, or lack thereof, of handpainted murals. If they've got them, you know the joint is for real, isn't some sort of fly-by-night operation and, perhaps most important, supports the visual arts and therefore appreciates the creative life.

You know the murals: the Mexican-ghetto outsider-art paintings, vivid in reds, yellows and greens, that depict remarkable acts of heroism, profound religious epiphanies or the simple pleasures of the human condition. What they lack in painterly precision -- a sometimes tenuous grasp of the human figure -- they make up for in wildly emotional, primal sentiment.

The late, lamented Taqueria Azteca on Cherokee Street made the commitment to murals, and it paid off with some of the best burritos this city has ever seen. And, sure, the buxom senorita in one of the paintings at Arcelia's in Lafayette Square (not a mural per se) has bigger arms than Andre the Giant and looks as if she's resting not on boulders but on humongous baked potatoes. So what? Something remarkable is happening to her, and we can witness it while we shovel in chicken enchiladas.

Las Palmas' murals are fantastic, especially the one of the boy petting his dog, expertly executed by the artist, one Sonny. The boy's sitting on a stoop; his floppy white terrier, tongue lolling, lounges by his side. In the distance, a sailboat breezes by. The sky is blue, and the unspoken message of the boy-and-his-dog painting -- life can be pretty good sometimes, and things are gonna be OK -- is mirrored by Las Palmas' food.

The atmosphere at the third Las Palmas, which opened five months ago in an Overland strip mall (the other two are in O'Fallon, Missouri, and in Woodson Terrace) screams, "Fiesta!" Piñatas dangle from the ceiling, Univision blazes on the television and two parrots lord it over the restaurant -- plastic, yes, but omnipotent nonetheless. A hundred-or-so tequila varieties line the shelves, yours for the ordering, and the speakers pump out Tex-Mex, Mex-Mex and cheesy Latin pop.

Speaking of Latin cheese, start your meal with the roasted-corn-and-tomato soup. It'll make you happy: the cheesiness, the roasted-corniness, the rusty-red tomato chunkiness. Its stock is gold-plated -- seems to glow in the bowl. Combined with the corn, cheese and a sharp jalepeño bolt, it's a ridiculously orgasmic soup experience.

Crab cakes, Macho Nachos, Las Palmas dip: Over the course of the Las Palmas week we tried them all and, without hesitation, rejoiced. The crab cakes were puffy but not wimpy, subtle but not spineless, an otherworldly merging of roasted corn (God bless it!), poblano peppers and cilantro. They're served with a double dollop of sour cream (way too much, actually), some greens and Las Palmas' diablo sauce. The diablo sauce, however, wasn't demonic at all. If this is the extent of Satan's heat, the damned have got it made and had better pack a sweater. The Las Palmas dip was a cholesterol-rich collection of yellow cheese, jalapeños, artichoke hearts and spinach. It was fine consumed atop light, semiweak tortilla chips.

From there we moved on to a house salad, the most memorable aspect of which was that it was too big for the plate, a problem if you're trying to impress a date or Mom with your deft command of the fork. You'll look like a bumbling fool while eating the first ten bites of the salad -- there will be as much lettuce on the Formica as on the plate. But it's not worth it. The salad was just so-so: The iceberg/romaine combo included tomatoes, onions, tortilla strips (in reality, uncrispy, downright soggy and buried beneath all else).

But, really, who orders salad at a Mexican joint? Fools, that's who. We're not here for greens, we're here for the basic elements of Mexican cuisine: beans, cheese, meat, rice and peppers.

Las Palmas' entrées are huge, served on Thanksgiving-size oval plates. Each offering was plated identically: in the center, the entrée; on the left, neon-green rice; and on the right, beans the way they're supposed to be -- refried, not pulverized into drywall mud but punished just enough to produce results. These are firm beans, still discernible as such, drenched in bean goo, cheddar cheese and a dose of chili. They're some of the best refried beans you're gonna find in gringo country. Sitting in a row above the entrée were plops of guacamole (a bit runny), sour cream and pico de gallo, which, like the diablo sauce, was surprisingly unspicy.

When our carne asada arrived, it nearly caused the table to collapse. Those of you living hand-to-mouth should make a beeline to Las Palmas -- costing just $9, the carne asada is two hefty meals' worth of food (and Mexican food makes for some of the most stable and reheatable leftovers out there). The steak is marinated until it's soaked, then grilled quickly and confidently. The result is sturdy but not tough. Mixing it with some beans, green rice and guacamole in a corn tortilla yielded a mess of flavors that combined in perfect harmony, even if the tortillas were soggy and flaky, indications that they weren't fresh.

In its seafood offerings, Las Palmas presents two red-snapper creations and twice as many shrimp dishes. We tried the camarones rancheros, shrimp with spicy sauce sautéed with mixed vegetables. Of all the entrées we tried, this was the most disappointing -- not because it wasn't flavorful but because the shrimp was overcooked. Nothing's more unappetizing than mushy sea bugs, and although the dish was poorly executed, it had potential, and we'd maybe gamble on it again.

The best entrée by far was the pollo enchiladas verdes -- literally "chicken enchiladas, green." The plate arrived, and we saw that the menu isn't kidding you about the color. Think kelly green with a puddle of brown (the beans) to one side. The appearance is somewhat unnatural, actually, as though you're looking at the plate on a malfunctioning color TV. But who cares about color? Take a bite, and welcome to the good life. Instead of being drizzled with the usual red sauce, these enchiladas, filled with chicken stewed in heavenly greenness (what seemed like a blend of parsley, tomatillo, cilantro and perhaps some onions), were slathered in yet more green. All this was topped with a suiza sauce. (Mexican-food fun fact: Suiza is "Swiss" in Spanish, and you can expect any entrée with such a sauce to be at least a little bit cheesy.)

The only problem was that on our second visit, everything arrived in quick succession: First the soup, just the right temperature. Then, within three bites -- and just as many orgasms -- the Macho Nachos arrived, also perfectly prepared and heated. Then, no more than three minutes later, this beast of an entrée, pollo enchiladas verde. Add water, chips, salsa and a Las Palmas margarita, and the table, not long ago barren, was overflowing -- and overwhelming. Which do I want now? Which will stay hot the longest? The cheddar's cooling on the nachos, and nothing's worse than cold nachos, so we'll eat them now. The soup is amazing, but it seems to be staying hot longer, so we'll put it off. Oh, Christ, the enchilada's amazing -- and getting cold! Hurry up!

The desserts encompassed the usual offerings: flan, which was unmemorable but did the trick; sopapillas, not one big puffball but four or five little fried diamonds sprinkled with cinnamon and flanking a scoop of vanilla ice cream and fresh whipped cream, with a cherry on top. Again, good but not surprising. The fried ice cream was great, but then, how can fried ice cream be anything but? The answer? It can't. Nor can the Las Palmas recipe: fresh ingredients, inspired but basic recipes and an overall celebration of simple pleasures.

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