This story should always begin with a question: Why? Why did we choose Little Anita’s Mexican restaurant over its next-door neighbor the Mesa Grill when even the appearances of both suggested the inevitable outcome: an outrageous tab, zero alcoholic buzz and immediate bubble guts? Why did we choose the empty parking lot over the one packed with cars? Maybe, it was the sign that said, “Enjoy a margarita with that fajita.” Or maybe it was my genuine belief that restaurants should never, ever be judged by their outward appearances, a belief that I have since reconsidered. I don’t know why, but on the second day of our cross-country trip when we stopped in Albuquerque, New Mexico, we both wholeheartedly agreed on Little Anita’s.
There was a moment when we should’ve known. Our waitress, Rosa, introduced herself and placed menus on the table. She then asked if she could start us with drinks. My brother and I had been talking about margaritas for over an hour in the car, so we quickly asked for one for each of us. Rosa asked for IDs and then said she would, “Just need to ask her manager to bring more wine.” It seemed like an offhanded remark, almost a pleasantry, but both my brother I would come back to that one comment over and over in the following days. Wine. Jumaane, who drinks exponentially less than me, who was quite tipsy after three drinks on his 21st birthday would remark, “Even I know margaritas have tequila in them. Right?”
But we let the comment slide, I think in hopes that we’d misunderstood. We perused the menus, nattering on about what we might order to eat. Neither of us said anything then about the prices, which seemed a little steep for the appearance of the place — all peeling linoleum and smudged windows. When the chips and salsa came, we dove right in. Except the white corn chips tasted like stale Utz tortilla chips and the salsa, while impressively spicy, still held the tinny flavor of the can it came out of. We laughed it off. I even think I said I liked the tomato-y goop attempting to be positive. We made idle conversation. We people-watched and eavesdropped on the large table of people behind us. And then Rosa brought our drinks in beautiful blue margarita glasses rimmed with salt and garnished with lime slices and we were again hopeful. We wanted to be wrong about what was becoming more apparent. We waited until we placed our orders to take the first sips, probably a good thing all things considered.
Tequila, I believe, is a very serious matter and margaritas, too. If possible, always drink mid-level or top-shelf. Shoot first and mix later. I’ll always prefer more tequila than margarita mix, and I believe a perfect ratio is 45/55 to combat an overly sweet concoction. The limes should be close to overly ripe for easy squeezing, and the rim should always be salted, not sugared. I have standards. So to say the first sip of the Little Anita’s margarita was one of the most disappointing moments of my life is to not be too dramatic for you. It was immediately clear that the wine in question, was in fact the alcohol portion of our mixed drink. Have you ever tried those single-serve alcohol pouches sold at grocery stores with names like “Blue Hurricane” and “Peach Paradise” ? After opening the Historic Neighborhood for the first time, an exhausting feat, my Fellow, Alisha, and I celebrated with Blue Hurricanes, which was a well-deserved sugar rush, though not much of a buzz. We would later cut holes on the silver pouches and put straws in them to make adult Capri Suns. Those kinds of drinks have a place in the world just like any other. But when I order I margarita, I want a goshdarn margarita, even if that means tequila made from boiled tires.
Jumaane, the none-drinker, was content with the syrupy sweetness, but after two or three sips, I slid my glass across the table to him in disgust. And then the food came. By now, we were mostly prepared. What we were not prepared for was the indistinguishable items on our plates. My #1 combination plate of a shredded beef tamale, a cheese enchilada and a hard shell taco with beans and rice was indiscriminate from Jumaane’s #2 combination plate of an enchilada, chimichanga and two sopapillas, except for the sopapillas came in a separate basket. All items, minus the beans and rice, were covered in a red chile sauce and random drizzlings of sour cream. My green chiles, which I’d missed from my time in Arizona, were also doused in the sauce of doom. The refried beans: bland. The rice: Dry — Jumaane found a clump of it burned and mixed in with the rest. Both too hungry to complain, we began to eat and just as quickly stopped. In the end, the saving grace of the whole experience was the fried tortillas of the sopapilla, which we drenched in honey and ate with sticky fingers.
When the check came, Little Anita served her final kick to our proverbial balls with a tab of $37, which became $42 after the tip to Rosa, whose only fault had been not warning us. The margaritas were $6 each, a cruel joke, as even the unfrozen liquid of the grocery store counterpart would’ve been better. As we stepped out onto the pavements to cross the street to our hotel, we were already laughing. We’d wanted a genuine Mexican meal in New Mexico and what we gotten instead was everything wrong with American food: tastelessness at a cost. We fought over who got to use the bathroom first.