Correction: Baja Grill, 5923 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock, does not offer call-ahead seating. This review included incorrect information provided by an employee.
Oprah speaks of defining "Aha!" moments.
Well, we had a defining "Baja" moment -- the first blissful bite of a Cuban Burrito ($8.50), a portly parcel of tortilla-swaddled shredded pork with smoke from chipotle aoili and snap from a cool cabbage-jicama slaw. We were hooked.
We're hardly the first. Baja Grill, which began its life as a beloved Benton-based food truck, has gone brick-and-mortar, setting up shop on the high-profile but historied Heights corner of Kavanaugh Boulevard and University Avenue. Several restaurants -- from Satellite Cafe to Seoul Korean Cuisine to Heights Cafe to Mamacita's (also a Mexican place) -- were unable to survive in the small spot with limited seating and parking.
But we have high hopes that Baja, where the atmosphere is easygoing and the simple fare is simply delicious, can break the spell.
(That said, gulp, Yellow Rocket Concepts, the ambitious Local Lime/ZaZa/Big Orange team, recently announced it will be opening Heights Taco & Tamale Co. in the nearby Browning's Mexican Grill spot. Keep your game up, Baja.)
The layout looks the way it has for a long time -- same booth and table configuration, with a bar on one side and shaded patio in the front. Neutral except for the shock of one apple green wall, the interior is clean with cheerful touches like blackboard-painted wine-bottle flower vases on which the servers write their names in chalk.
Prepare to wait and have your name and wireless number entered on a tablet computer. Then expect text messages with your wait time and when your table is ready. On a weeknight, we had no wait. On a Friday, we were quoted a 20-minute wait with nowhere to linger except outside in the pouring rain -- no thanks. We returned early on a Saturday, when we were quoted a 10-minute wait and idled in open seats at the bar.
Speaking of bar, Baja expects to have its alcohol permit July 1. No bother, we saw patrons bring in wine and margaritas. Available beverages include tea, Coke (even Mexican Coke) and Dr Pepper products and Hi-C fruit punch.
The menu couldn't be less complicated. Choose from one of the nine fillings (chicken, beef, veggie, mahi mahi, shrimp or four varieties of pork). And then choose how you want it served: in a taco ($3.50-$4.75 each), a quesadilla ($7-$9.50) or a burrito ($7.50-$9). Or go the gluten-free route and order a Naked Burrito, featuring the same ingredients without what the menu calls "carb-filled clothes."
Any sides, like rice and beans ($1.75 for both), are extra, as are "mini sides" of sour cream, pico de gallo and salsa (75 cents). If we have a concern about Baja, it's that one could feel nickle-and-dimed. Then again, patrons aren't charged for unwanted and ultimately wasted food.
Also extra are chips and salsa. Baja's chips and fresh, full-bodied salsa cost $3 (small) or $5 (large). It's an appealing appetizer, for sure; still we'll always believe that chips and salsa want to be free. One thing that does come for free: a sampling of Baja's super hot sauce (says the menu: "I can't believe it's not acid! We dare you."). We dabbed the fiery, smoky sauce on our dinners and lived to tell about it.
Another starter is a silky Queso Blanco ($4 small, $6 large) with a hint of heat from jalapeno bits. The large didn't seem all that large.
Baja's guacamole ($4.50 small, $6.50 large), which arrived already mixed, was fine, but not particularly memorable. Maybe we've gotten spoiled by so many places making it fresh at the table. Our small portion was quite tiny.
To sample all three dips, a Triple Dipper is available for $10 (small) and $15 (large).
Our first meal included pork two ways: the Cuban Burrito and a Pig Sooie Quesadilla ($9), flour tortilla triangles of shredded pork, barbecue sauce, cheddar cheese, Southern slaw and pickled red onions, served with pico de gallo and sour cream. "Sort of Ark-Mex," described the friend who ordered it. "Very nice combination."
We were equally smitten with our second-visit choices: two tacos (Blackened Shrimp, Baja Chicken) and a Baja Beef Burrito.
The lively shrimp taco ($4.75) featured four fat, flavorful shellfish on dry slaw with tequila lime aioli queso fresco and mango salsa. The tender and seasoned shredded chicken ($3.50) came with salsa verde, lettuce, tomato, onion and cheddar cheese. Both came double wrapped for strength in locally made, soft white corn tortillas.
My date was impressed by the savor and the size of the Baja Beef Burrito ($7.75), featuring slow-smoked shredded beef, Baja sauce (roasted red pepper aioli), pico de gallo and queso fresco. The side of fluffy rice and smoky black beans merited the $1.75 upcharge.
Having seen another table share Baja's signature sculpturelike dessert, the Xango ($7.95; pronounced "zango"), we had to split the scrumptious, cinnamon-dusted fried cheesecake ice cream dessert.
This was an "ahh!" moment.
Weekend on 06/05/2014
Print Headline: Baja: Bright new kid on corner