- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2003

Tequila Grande satisfies the palate in a grand way. The 5-year-old Mexican restaurant in Vienna doesn’t look like much from the outside with its tan stucco facade and loud murals, reminiscent of so many only-slightly-better-than-fast-food eateries. But the food is remarkably tasty, made with fresh ingredients and excellent preparation.

We started with the mandatory — very crisp — chips and very fresh salsa, and a spinach con queso, a surprisingly light cheese and fresh spinach dip.

With generous bowls of delicious salsa and spinach con queso dips, our commitment not to finish an entire basket of chips was quickly abandoned.

Another favorite appetizer is Baja shrimp. Sauteed in jalapeno garlic butter with fresh cilantro, roasted pepper seeds and scallions, these large shrimp are served with a clear, very tasty sweet-and-sour sauce. This is a true appetizer — you want more with each succulent bite.

To honor the namesake of the restaurant, a margarita was a must. It was well-blended and tasty.

Next came the carne asada, a perfectly prepared and seasoned 8-ounce steak, topped with sauteed onions, peppers, mushrooms, salsa ranchera and melted cheese. The dish, accompanied by a chicken flauta (deep-fried tortilla filled with chicken), rice, black beans, sour cream and warm tortillas, easily can be described with three words: fresh, flavorful, fabulous.

These words could also help describe another entree, the tacos al carbon. This dish comes with warm tortillas filled with tender and deliciously seasoned strips of steak, served with flavorful rice, black beans, sour cream, guacamole and the pico de gallo sauce.

The guacamole — so dependent on good, fresh ingredients — really is one of the best ways to judge a Mexican restaurant. If it’s turning gray and is amended with ingredients such as mayonnaise, you just wonder what else the restaurant is skimping on. At Tequila Grande, however, the avocado dip is excellent — fresh and lemon-infused.

Other perfectly prepared dishes were the chili relleno and the chicken tamale. The chili relleno — stuffed chili — which so often just tastes like a big blob of cheese, was deliciously prepared with a fresh tomato, onion and garlic sauce.

The chicken tamale (the restaurants has daily variations on the tamale, including chicken and spinach) was also nicely done.

So all this sumptuous Mexican food would have to be the culinary creations of a homegrown chef, right? Not so. The head chef for Tequila Grande and its sister restaurants in Maryland — Casa Rico in Frederick and Casa Rico in Westminster — is Renu Prakash, who is Indian-born, along with the rest of the restaurant’s owner/management team.

Mrs. Prakash cooked Mexican food for other restaurants for about a dozen years, but always had the intention of opening one of her own restaurants. We’re thankful she stuck with her plan.

But not even Mrs. Prakash seems able to spruce up the sad state of Mexican desserts that always seem to disappoint no matter how good the restaurant. Sopapillas, for example, taste more like fried breakfast cereal than a decadent dessert.

How can a nation have such delicious food and such mediocre desserts? We ended up with the flamingo, which is fried ice-cream with a dash of cognac, served flaming and topped with hot fudge. It may sound exciting, but it’s quite dull.

The interior of Tequila Grande can be described as cantina kitsch, with loads of touristy bric-a-brac on wall-mounted shelves and murals of women baking tortillas. But it’s done nicely and the atmosphere is friendly, attracting Little League baseball players and their parents, police officers, middle-aged couples and teenagers on a recent Saturday night.

It’s also spacious, seating more than 200 people comfortably, and in the next few weeks outdoor seating will be added for those who want to dine al fresco.

The service is very good. Our waitress was friendly and prompt. But this is not a place for career waiters. Tequila Grande employs youngsters. They don’t have sophisticated food and server knowledge and skill, but they exude energy and sweetness and are “happy to find out” any information you might request.

Tequila Grande may not attract District residents to its remote location (a 20- to 30-minute drive out of the city on a good day) but that’s a shame, because this Mexican restaurant, run by Indians, blows other eateries offering south-of-the-border fare out of the water.

Tequila Grande provides not just fast service — sometimes a good-enough reason to go to a Mexican cantina — but it also offers the kind of Mexican food you would expect to find in Texas, meaning the ingredients and preparation are first class.

In its category — a very moderately priced Mexican eatery — Tequila Grande is as good as it gets.

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