With memories of a sumptuous fish soup in mind, I scheduled my visit to La Fiesta for the weekend, which was the only time it had been available. Was, alas, is the operative word, since it's no longer served, on any day of the week. But that was my only disappointment on a recent visit, and I did find consolation in the savoury chicken, chipotles and rice soup.
This isn't Mexican, or even Tex-Mex food. It's Salvadoran, and you don't come here for incendiary spices -- there aren't any. Some of the names may be the same, but this is a milder cuisine, more soul-satisfying and flavourful than many of the chili-powered dishes I've had elsewhere, and if you can't live without the heat, there's a bottle of hot sauce on every table. Prices have risen, inevitably, since my last visit five years ago, but not by much, and they still offer some of the town's better bargains.
Snacks and appetizers range from $2.75 to $3.50 each. I had my first ever pupusa in Fiesta's original hole-in-the-wall, on Sherbrook, and I have yet to find the equal anywhere of these delectable little cornmeal pancakes stuffed with cheese, beans, pork or a combination of all the above. The tiny tamales are soft and soothing, those filled with chicken and chickpeas steamed in a banana leaf, the slightly sweet ones with a corn filling in a corn husk. By contrast the enchiladas are crackling-crisp tortillas, topped by beef, coleslaw, beans or guacamole.
Single burritos can be ordered from $6.95 to $7.95, with vegetarian, beef or chicken fillings, or as oversized podorosas from $9.95 vegetarian to $12.95 with shrimp. There are also combination platters in dizzying variety, and I inevitably end up with the Signature Dinner for Two at $43.95, which takes the dither out of making choices.
It starts with tall glasses of wonderfully refreshing house-made fruit drinks -- fresh strawberry, in my case -- and goes on to a choice of salad or soup (salads are nice but the soups are better). Then come platters containing two tamales (one corn, one chicken), two beef enchiladas, two pupusas (one beef and cheese, the other pork and cheese) and two burritos (one chicken, the other beef). Also -- like the fruit drinks, a relatively new addition to the meal -- a massive and perfectly luscious meringue topped by either strawberries or blueberries and lashings of cream.
There are also a few weekend specials, and although the fish soup may have disappeared, a weekend visit is still worth it for the shrimp special at $18.95 -- enormous, plump, juicy and fragrant with garlic, including rice, salad, a corn flour tortilla and soup of the day.
There are the usual margaritas and sangrias but I always opt for one of the excellent Mexican beers (Dos Equis, por favor). The dining room is small and cramped, but with a warm and cheerful vibe. Dinner only, but the restaurant will be open Thursday to Saturday only from Jan. 30, Feb. 7 and Feb.13. Unless you get there when the doors open at 4 p.m., reservations are a must.
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The Grove's entrees are few, but at least one of them -- the perfectly braised duck leg, garnished with a chunk of top-notch crispy pork belly -- is, at $20, one of the city's better buys. Most of the others go for $16, which buys a thick slice of haddock encased in golden brown batter (with chips and malt vinegar, of course), or a comforting lamb stew with potatoes, peas and carrots in brown gravy, or that pub classic of big, juicy bangers and mash (unsampled, but good on previous visits). Meat pies change daily, but I can't recommend the pie of my jour -- tender enough venison but tough chunks of kidney and hard carrot dice that tasted like an afterthought.
I don't usually include burgers or sandwiches in bargain columns, and at the Grove they cost $10 to $12. But they are truly meal-sized, and come with either a nice salad or a mini-mountain of excellent fries. The burgers are wonderful -- mouth-wateringly juicy, with a full beefy flavour and multiple toppings, and although I'm usually just a ketchup-and-relish person, I can't resist the Grove's opulent Dorchester, with sautéed onions, bacon, a fried egg and chimichurri sauce.
The lamb sarnie was lovely, too, heaped with slices of roast lamb, caramelized onions, arugula and crispy shallots, and drenched in brown gravy; it would have been lovelier still if it had been hot instead of tepid. The lightly curried Coronation chicken salad sandwich was packed so thick I got two lunches out of it.
The sticky pudding is good, albeit less sticky than it used to be, but the tangy lemon curd tart on a short crust is nothing short of glorious.
The lounge is usually packed, but the ambience in the dining room is spare, calm and cool. Reservations are accepted for groups of six or more only and, if there are only two of you, you may be told in mid-meal (as I was), that you'll have to give up your table in about half an hour to one of those groups. Bad form, and excusable only if you're told about it before you sit down. Service, otherwise, is friendly and efficient.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.
Restaurants marked with a red flag were rated between 0.5 to 2.5 stars; yellow flags mark those rated between 2.5 to 4 stars; and green flags mark those rated rated 4.5 to 5 stars. Locations marked with a yellow dot were not assigned a star rating.