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What the food lacks, the margaritas make up for at Nacho Mama's, Carytown's favorite cantina.

The Mild Mexican

Nacho Mama's serves it up without a lot of fire or spice. It delivers fun food for the unadventurous and serves a mean margarita for the rest of us.

I've noticed the throngs of people who gather after work for a margarita under Nacho Mama's yellow, faux-grass-hut umbrellas that mark its miniature patio. I seem to be among the last to visit this hip Richmond cantina. Partly it's because I like to avoid the crowds of trendy mouths; mostly it's because I am not hip. So when I broke down and visited Nacho Mama's for the first time, it had already received local praise by Richmond Magazine for "Best Carytown Restaurant,1999" and Style Weekly's reader's poll for "Best Outdoor Dining, 2000."

We arrived late on a Thursday night (after 9) to a full patio and a few inside tables enjoying the air-conditioned and smoke-free dining rooms upstairs. We were told that the kitchen was open until 11, and we asked to be moved to a seat on the small patio when one was available. The courteous waitress immediately brought over a bowl of tortilla chips accompanied by a very quiet salsa whose pureed ingredients lacked zest.

Like the entranceway mural of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, and Lucy and Desi Arnez, the menu is meant to be fun but not exactly authentic Mexican, Texan, or even Cuban. It offers a fair range of familiar Mexican-American dishes with a twist — including items such as Mama's Mexican pizza appetizer ($5.95) and a trendy, portobello-mushroom wrap ($7.25).

I ordered camarones y aguacates ($7.95), a shrimp-and-avocado "house specialty" appetizer. My vegetarian friend started with guacamole ($4.95). About 10 minutes later my appetizer arrived with six medium-sized shrimp, steamed to perfection and arranged around a martini-type glass filled with a pureed avocado-tequila sauce, though the tequila seemed absent to me. My friend's guacamole was fresh, with lots of onion and large chunks of avocado.

A space opened up on the patio, and we moved from our table downstairs to one outside next to a table of teen-age girls. The view from the four tables on the patio could hardly be called pastoral as it overlooked a dry cleaner and a fast-food restaurant, but luckily the umbrella provided some shade from the golden arches glaring in the night sky.

For an entree, I ordered carnitas cubanas, tender chunks of pork marinated in Cuban spices. My friend was interested in the Southwest chimichanga minus the grilled chicken it was stuffed with, but was told that the burritos were prepared ahead of time and could not be altered. She opted for the vegetarian burrito instead.

Less than 20 minutes later our orders arrived. I was mostly pleased with my meal. Served with rice, black beans and a very mild salsa verde (seemingly made with poblano peppers and chicken stock), the large portion of shredded pork took up most of the plate. Its Cuban-style marinade was indistinct, but the pork was juicy and flavorful. And although the menu promised flour tortillas, it was served with steamed corn tortillas instead. The pico de gallo and guacamole that accompanied the dish were served in tiny plastic to-go cups complete with lids, which seemed odd.

My friend was not impressed with her vegetarian burrito; it seemed to lack flavor and the rice that accompanied it was dry. The grilled vegetables wrapped in the burrito also lacked texture, adding to the general mediocrity of the meal.

During dinner we enjoyed a pitcher of Dos Equis, which was needed because water was not served until I specifically asked for it at the conclusion of the meal.

As the sign was turned off and umbrellas taken down, the waitress asked if we wanted dessert — either fried ice cream or a Kahlua flan — but neither seemed as inspiring to me as the impressive selection of margaritas. In fact, I found Mama's ultimate margarita ($7) with Cuervo 1800 and Grand Marnier the best I have ever had in Richmond.

When we finished our meal it was nearly 11. It became obvious that Nacho Mama's doesn't intend to serve until 11, as much as it plans on closing at 11. I may try it again, but at an earlier hour.

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