Grown-up tastes

The jingle, “La, la, la, La Piñata,” has haunted many longtime Renoites’ dreams.

The jingle, “La, la, la, La Piñata,” has haunted many longtime Renoites’ dreams.

Photo By David Robert

La Piñata

1575 Vassar St.
Reno, NV 89502

(775) 323-3210

La Piñata has been around for ages. I know because my parents used to take the family there when we were kids. Back then, I hated it because I thought I didn’t like Mexican food. The smell of refried beans used to make me gag and feign convulsions. But my dad’s the type of guy to find one restaurant he likes and go there over and over. So, for a couple years in the mid-'80s, we used to eat there nearly once a week. As a teenager, I wrote it off despairingly as “my father’s Mexican restaurant.”

Then I totally forgot that it even existed. Vassar and Kietzke is not an intersection I have much reason to frequent, and there are enough Mexican restaurants in town that, now that I’ve been won over to the south-of-the-border culinary persuasion, I have my own regular haunts. But I was out scouring the city for undiscovered food treasures the other day and saw La Piñata and was overwhelmed with unhappy childhood memories. So I vowed to confront these horrors and revisit the place. I’m happy to report that, despite my memories to the contrary, it’s a nice little hidden gem.

The place itself is amazing, with a cantina front room and a number of dining rooms, including large, unused back rooms that sat dark and undisturbed. The cantina area has a nice little stage, and the host that seated us (he might’ve been the owner; he had that general air of casual authority) said that they occasionally do have live music there.

When we visited, at an off-time on a weeknight, the place practically was deserted except for one other couple and an army of piñatas. There were trucks and trains and evil-grinning purple Barneys and clowns (poor Sara was frightened by these and clung to my arm in terror) and some elephant-donkey hybrid monster that looked like the beast of a single-party system.

The salsa was disappointing. It was quite spicy, yet somehow still bland. The rest of the grub was pretty good. They have combination plates named after Mexican cities. I had the Guadalajara, for $9.75, which consisted of a taco, an enchilada and a chile relleno (a stuffed pepper).

Sara had the Guaymas for $9.50: an enchilada, a taco and a tostada.

I was most impressed with my chile relleno. It can be a tricky dish to pull off, what with the funky flavor combination of egg and chile. But the chile relleno at La Piñata scratched the taste-itches I needed to scratch.

The plates were huge and hot. The food didn’t have nearly enough lime or cilantro to win the authenticity sweepstakes, but it’s not so Americanized as to be phony Tex-Mex nonsense. They have a buffet set-up, but it wasn’t open at dinner time.

Our server was suave and polite, if a bit hands-off. Overall, the atmosphere was relaxed and casual. The host sat in the cantina watching baseball until he saw somebody coming.

I can see how my parents pegged it as family-friendly, but with the low lighting and cavernous backrooms, it seems even better suited to being somebody’s secret hangout. La Piñata is a quiet place to go to take it easy, to eat some good food and drink some margaritas (we split an $11 pitcher). I actually got real excited about this plan until I heard from my brother that the place gets taken over by frat boys on the weekends. So much for my secret hangout—I guess frat boys need a place to hang out, too.