Floating Skulls and Mariachi Bands are Tough to Keep Secret

I wasn't going to take any pictures at Boca Chica.

I was going to just enjoy the music, and later my meal, and not fret over exhibition. I had previously preached to my wife about how, sometimes, you need to keep a Saturday for yourself. I was taking no mental notes.

That was before the mariachi band lined up right behind us. My wife noticed something about one of the guitarists and shook my senses back into me.

"That one looks just like Tweak!" she said. "You need to take a picture!"

Just like that, hope of an unexploited experience rose up and dissipated. It's for the better -- in fact, I apologize for not wanting to tell you about this to begin with. From the mustard skull hanging in the entry, to margaritas that kick like horses, to Selma Hayek-hot salsa, to a tilapia plate you can eat wrong and still savor, the experience of Boca Chica requires no strain to recount and no regrets passing on.

Don't bother trying not to.

Boca Chica Restaurante on UrbanspoonThe Basics: Boca Chica stands in West St. Paul just a block off Robert St. and Chavez and is celebrating their 50th year with open doors. They've got outdoor seating if you want it, but the view isn't spectacular. You can find them on the web here; the Our Story page is a worthwhile, quick read.

Among the site's goodies is a virtual tour. I highly recommend it. It might be one of the coolest things you see on Google Maps. In a hurry? Boca Chica's nearby Taco House is billed as a fast-food equivalent to the main house.

I'm not describing the interior. If the floating skull and the link to a virtual tour don't do it for you, get lost. Go hang out at Lake and Irving or Cook St. Paul or whatever hip snooze hole and admire the same crap you see everywhere. Go ahead.

Insignificant Narrative I'm Including to Drag This Piece Out: My wife left our wedding rings in the car -- you know what, I'm not going to tell this story. I just told it to myself, and it gets weird immediately.

We'd like to be allowed back. That's how much we enjoyed Boca Chica.

The end.

Yeah, you wish!

The mariachi band appeared to be having genuine fun -- you can tell when they aren't --  and, when the performers have fun, patrons have fun. This is especially true when the restaurant's kicking out Ford-tough margaritas. My wife was well on her way after one. She had two. Having just run 12 miles earlier (not that I'm bragging; I bragged Monday), I settled for water to start and eased into Dos Equis ambers.

The pre-fight chips were heartier than the standard bag fare, and the salsa made my nose run a little. You can request a milder salsa, but even that was too intense for my wife. She ate the chips dry, and wasn't troubled by it.

The salsa had a nice balance; not liquidy to the point of dripping off before you bite, but not chunky to the point of tumbling out of the bowl every time you tried to load a chip up. A good pre-meal salsa is under-appreciated, probably because so many restaurant mess it up. Boca does not.

Some orders provide a soup to precede the meal, but don't get too ecstatic. It's got this unpleasing Chef Boyarde-made look, and doesn't taste a great many ticks better. It's a fungible time-killer, but I got bored before long and slid it away.

I tabbed a tilapia filet while my wife ordered a taco salad. The wait didn't seem long, but the people watching passed the time nicely. You could wonder what the woman in the sequined cowboy hat was saying to her khaki-shorts-rockin' men, or what the woman at the table of six was saying to make her friends so uncomfortable. You could watch white girls dance their white-girl dance, knees bobbing and arms finned over their heads, booties pressed together and bouncing in tandem. Just like that, the food arrived.
The fish looked fantastic, and I'm convinced it was more than the six ounces advertised. I flicked it open with my fork, and it was just a beautiful cut of meat: Crunchy on the outside, snow white on the inside, a little tuft of smoke shot out and up. At first, I paired it with the avocado to offset the heat, but I took the tilapia solo once my tongue allowed it. It's tough for me to reach for seafood at a restaurant because it can be outrageous on the bill and underwhelming on the palate. I would order this tilapia 10 of 10 times.

And I didn't even eat it right.

It wasn't until the very end I noticed the container of tortillas. Oh, so I was supposed to put this all together in something? And here you are, trusting my food recommendations. Maybe you're better off getting tips from the Andrew Zimmern imposter. The beans were pretty good by themselves (they're beans; what do you want from me here), but the others got limited play as I approached tum-capacity.

I forgot to ask my wife about her taco salad, but I can tell you that she has a practice of halving her meals and abandoned it Saturday. A clean plate is a happy plate, right?

Two margaritas, two entrees, and a beer cost us just north of $40. That isn't bad -- in fact, that's pretty good. Service, considering the raucous crowd at the onset, was good. The waitress was on point once the needier parties departed.

We'll be back at Boca Chica. It's a creative and satisfying dining experience that begins the second you step in the door.

Go ahead, pass it on. Experiences like these aren't meant to be kept secret.

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