HARLINGEN — It’s a Tuesday night at La Playa Mexican Café, and the warm lights spread from the ceiling and fall onto wooden tables and tiled floors while country music fill the dinner air.
The parking lot of the restaurant at 502 S. 77 Sunshine Strip with all the cars is deceptively intimidating because inside there are enough tables for everybody and some to spare.
A hostess greets me. I indicate it’s just me and ask for a booth. She’s all smiles, youth and energy and makes me feel welcome.
As soon as I sit down, one young man brings a bucket of warm chips, another brings me a menu, and a third brings me a glass of water.
The ’70s hit song, “Dancing in the Moonlight” filled the dining room with refreshing rhythms laced with nostalgia.
My eyes roam across a familiar menu I’ve known for quite awhile. I’ve enjoyed this restaurant many times since I moved here some years ago.
I always get the same thing, “Los Panchos,” and it never disappoints.
What I’ve always found amusing, however, is that Los Panchos is listed under “appetizers,” but it’s a full meal of corn chips, chicken, beef, sour cream, cheese and sweet guacamole.
I’ve never been able to consume the whole plate at one sitting.
I know I’ll have to take some of it home in a box, which is another reason I place the order — so I can savor it again a second time.
Meanwhile, the tables fill with the tired and the hungry, with their plates, crumbs and welcome drinks. Soon the chatter of evening voices heavy with the deliberate efforts at relaxation and eager escape becomes layered with the music, the laughing and the camaraderie.
The men with their black jackets, jeans and hoodies lean close and gesture with their hands, and the women with stern faces and cautious and level voices convey a sort of visual and auditory enchantment.
Meanwhile, a little girl stirs restlessly in her chair and rummages through her food.
I like the color scheme: the browns, grays, Earth yellows and the dark blue. And the warm light creates a fine effect as the waiter brings me my dish.
One thing I’ve always admired about this restaurant is its consistency — of service and of the food.
My plate is packed with warm tortilla chips covered in generous amounts of refried beans, cheese and well cooked chicken and beef, and I take my time savoring every bite.
I relax and take my time enjoying the nuances of the experience, both with my meal and with diners filling up with customers relieved to finish the day at such an iconic place.
I ask for a box, which the waiter readily brings to me. Through the evening the waiters have been very attentive, frequently stopping by my table to see if I need anything.
But by the time I’ve finished eating and am ready to pay my bill, the place is packed and the waiters have accelerated their pace.
I asked several times for a paper receipt after I paid my bill, and it took a little longer than I would have liked. But it’s understandable for a popular place like this that little hiccups along the way will occur.
Overall, it was a fine experience, as always.