1201 Lakeshore Dr., Lake Charles, • 429-5755
The Local Grubscape By Justin Morris
You know, I may have mentioned this once before, but I was not always the biggest Mexican food fan. I’ve grown into it over the last seven or eight years. But despite my late arrival to the scene, it is a very specific segment of the Local Grubscape that is growing — and it’s growing big time.
The last decade has seen a noted increase in local Tex-Mex/Mexican options. The real steam, however, has poured on over the last four or five years, finally leaving us with quite a few more options than just Casa Manana, Cancun and Taco Bell. While I have frequented a number of these new places over the last couple of years, one crept up on me almost overnight. And, incidentally, it could be the little “picante” that downtown was looking for.
When it was less than a month old, I found Laguna’s Mexican Grill and Cantina, nestled on the southeast corner of Lakeshore Dr. and Clarence, with a decent starter crowd by the time I arrived at 5:01 on a Friday afternoon. And a line was starting to stack up at the door an hour later as I left.
As I am wont to do, I beat a path back to the bar and settled in. I was quickly greeted by Antonio (from San Antonio, as it was), a friendly and upbeat guy who was more than happy to try to get a drink in my hand. And, at 5 pm on a Friday, why on earth shouldn’t he?
He mentioned that happy hour was underway and that included two-for-one drafts. He also mentioned their margarita offerings, which didn’t get too fruity or bizarre. Higher grades of tequila created upscale tiers to include “Top Shelf” and “24 Karat,” which includes Anejo grade tequilla, Grand Marnier in lieu of Triple Sec and, possibly, more. I didn’t head down that rabbit hole as I’m still not a big tequila fan in any sense of the word, though I can enjoy a good margarita on occasion.
I was thinking of staying away from the agave madness altogether until another bartender, Shay, mentioned a cucumber margarita that he seemed to be fond of, and my curiosity was piqued — I’m not nuts about margaritas but I’m all about some cucumber. So to stay true to the theme (for journalistic purposes, assuredly) and to indulge both my curiosity and my bona fide culinary appreciation of the unpickled pickle, the choice was made. It arrived just after a delivery of chips along with salsa of two persuasions: a red salsa and a seedy, dark verde. I was told that the verde was the hotter of the two and, by sight alone, I knew it to be true.
It was deep, earthy and hot — hotter than I expected, but I’m one of those weirdos that grows chili peppers and likes wicked violent hot sauces, so I’m usually underwhelmed on heat.
This one stood up. I’ll admit to liking the brighter, tangier flavor of the red salsa, but the verde had a solid heat that I was pleased to find without having to order it online. And even for a Scoville junkie like me, half the fun of blowing your palette up is getting to cool it off with something good. And that on-the-rocks, salted cucumber margarita did the trick. The cold was one thing, but the clean flavor of the slightly bitter cucumber and the salt seemed to tame the earthiness of the tequila down and make for quite a surprisingly good, fresh cocktail. The $9 large was worth it. Do it.
While I basked in spice and cucumber revelry, Antonio set right to work telling me his menu favorite and convincingly urging me to order it. With quite the extensive menu to sort through and hunger gnawing, I felt inclined to listen. This led to a veritable pile of food set before me by the time all was said and done.
The entrée was a fajita-seasoned carne asada slab, uncut and cooked as a thin steak. Both of the dutiful servers recommended medium due to the thickness, even though I would get a steak done mid-rare. With it, I got a beautiful fluffy Mexican rice and (only due to the fact that I didn’t think I could eat them all) subbed the refried beans for charro bean soup, something I’ve really taken to over the last year or two. Taking their suggestion and making this substitution may have been the two best decisions I made all week.
The carne asada was flavorful, rich and insanely juicy. Bear in mind, while this is “steak-cooked,” it’s not what most people think of as a dinner steak. This is skirt steak — a thin but flavorful side cut of meat that has steak-like qualities, including rich meat and good fat content to really give it that flavor.
This particular serving was cooked up in a carne asada style that was balanced, juicy and tender and incredibly flavorful. It was so good that, by all measures, it should have been the best part of the meal. But I just can’t say that it was — not with that charro bean soup.
This bottom-of-the ninth substitution smashed it out of the park if for no other reason than I spent at least half the meal trying to figure out what I was tasting in it that set it so far apart.
At first, I thought it was something sweet, but that didn’t quite fit. It wasn’t until an almost sweet potato flavor hit my palette that I realized it was a nutmeg flavor making me think of sweet things.
Regardless, those beans and that soup had me thinking pretty intently the whole time that I loaded up soft corn tortillas with hot verde sauce, sour cream, cheese, grilled onions and peppers, fresh avocado slices and big, thick cuts of that delightful carne asada and gobbled them up with abandon.
I wanted another whole order, but was too stuffed to even consider it. I surrendered the remains of my rice and the bulk of my chips back to Antonio before I got so miserably full that I ran outside and threw myself into the Lake to end the agony.
All joking aside, that goofy little missive did turn my thoughts outside and I started to remember …
This location has been a number of things even in the nigh unto 40 years I’ve been around. It’s been a long-time car dealership, some type of trucking terminal, a motorcycle custom paint shop and then at least one or two restaurants, Vickie B’s being the most recent. I’ll admit to having gone there only once. Not that I had any reason to not go back, I enjoyed it very much. I just didn’t make it back before they were gone, and I realized that it was up to me to see to it that it didn’t happen again.
Laguna’s is on Lakeshore Drive, but it’s on the quieter end and one that could be forgotten about, even by those actually at the Civic Center. That’s going to take some noise and, based on the food and the service I had during my visit, it’s some noise I’m happy to make. I hope you all stop in, check ‘em out and tell them you heard about them from good ol’ Justin here. I do hope it’s worth the visit.
Before I left, Antonio made sure to mention, “Hey, man. If you enjoyed it, make sure to tell all your friends about us.”
I replied, “Oh, don’t worry. I plan to do just that.”