Fajita be you and me

My college roommate was the daughter of one of the original Yugoslav farmer immigrants to the Rocklin area. I visited her home one Thanksgiving, and back then (only 20 years ago!), there was still rolling ranch land, and Rocklin was a one-stoplight burg. It sure makes me feel old when I drive through the acres of spanking-new subdivisions and pricey shopping centers being thrown up every day near Highway 65.

The Plaza at Stanford Ranch is a case in point; I swear it wasn’t there yesterday. But if you exit Highway 65 at the Wal-Mart and keep going to what used to be bare land, there it is, anchored by a handsome two-story Mexican restaurant that looks like it was dropped by stork from Laguna Hills.

Cha-Cha’s Cocina Mexicana owes more to the Chevys ethos than to something grittier and more authentic, but it’s a very pleasant place to dine nonetheless. It features a patio protected by a half-wall that gazes out at nothing more aesthetically pleasing than the parking lot. If you don’t feel like contemplating hot asphalt, pull open the huge, heavy wood doors and find a seat inside the extremely attractive, high-ceilinged dining room. The room is painted in inviting shades of sage and umber and features high (fake) beams and tasteful Mexican crafts.

High marks must be given to the service, which was extremely friendly and efficient. Cha-Cha’s had advertised itself in previews as offering a new take on regional Mexican cuisine, but the restaurant reportedly has scaled back its menu because of an unadventurous clientele. Certainly, there were no big surprises among Cha-Cha’s offerings, which included the usual taco, enchilada and fajita plates.

The most adventurous part of the menu, in fact, was the drinks section. Cha-Cha’s offers a classic margarita in eight flavors, including jamaica (hibiscus) and mango, as well as special-blend margaritas at a breathtaking $7.99 a glass. The restaurant also offers an impressive collection of more than two dozen high-end tequilas, with one-ounce pours ranging in price from $5.75 to $10.50. More plebeian tastes can opt for a nice selection of beer by the bottle or draft. To be fair, although the margaritas were pricey, they delivered quite a kick. No skimping on the booze here.

We tried taquitos de res y papa ($6.99) as an appetizer, and this turned out to be the only real disappointment of the evening. The starter proved to be three taquitos filled with potatoes, shredded beef and onions, napped in a guajillo sauce and served with guacamole. The filling was an undistinguished mash of soft potatoes and bland beef, not redeemed much by the sauce.

Other starters featured the usual suspects: quesadillas, ceviche and a shrimp cocktail. Cha-Cha’s features some interesting salads for a lighter meal; these include a mango-glazed chicken breast on greens with coconut and a mango pico de gallo ($10.99), as well as a spinach salad enlivened with toasted almonds, banana chips and dried berries ($7.99). The restaurant also serves either fresh seasonal fish ($13.99) or shrimp ($14.99) with your choice of five sauces, including mojo de ajo (garlic) or tamarind and chipotle.

My husband opted for the tried-and-true, a combination fajita platter ($13.99), and was rewarded for his lack of imagination: long strips of marinated and perfectly grilled beef and chicken, along with onions and red and green bell peppers. Though the server asked him if he wanted refried or whole black beans, he ended up getting both. With the accompanying guacamole, sour cream and tortillas, this was both delicious and filling. He was disgusted, though, when he asked for hot sauce and was presented with a bottle of Cholula rather than something homemade.

I had less luck with my choice, pollo en mole estilo puebla ($13.99). The mole sauce, described as a blend of seven peppers, peanuts, plantains, sesame seeds, chocolate and spices, was overwhelming in its dark, bitter intensity. The chicken, though perfectly tender, obviously had been cooked separately and covered with the sauce rather than having been simmered in it. Although it was good, it was a little too much; the chicken was too bland by itself to stand up to such a rich sauce.

If you’re looking for some down-home Mexican food that tastes as though it was just smuggled over the border, this is not the place to go. But if you’re looking for an upscale, Americanized eatery with good food and great margaritas, Cha-Cha’s is your place. Stick to the standards, and you’ll be just fine.