1703 S. First, 440-1889
Mon-Thu, 11am-10pm; Fri, 11am-11pm; Sat, 8am-11pm; Sun, 8am-10pm

The 5pm hour rolled around as we pulled into the parking lot of Mercedes Martinez (MM). Only two other cars sat in the vast lot, and the idea of "getting happy" at an empty eatery didn't tempt us, so we headed down the street to a tried-and-true favorite, vowing we'd return in an hour or two. The scene at MM wasn't much more lively at 7pm, despite the live musician who was tuning up, but we settled in anyway and began downing yet another basket of chips. Hotheads will appreciate MM's salsa. There's nothing subtle about the stuff. It's hot. It's onion-y. And oddly, it's seasoned liberally with cracked black pepper.

Mercedes Martinez's menu fills four pages, with standard appetizers such as chile con queso ($3.95 small; $4.95 large), stuffed jalapeños (MM's version comes deep-fried), nachos, and quesadillas offered as openers. From there, however, the menu assumes a look far different from the norm. Take, for example, the Seafood Enchiladas ($6.95), supposedly "Chef Paul's" favorites, or the New Mexico blue corn Santa Fe Enchiladas ($6.95), or the Fresh Tuna Steak ($6.95), with cilantro, mushrooms, and green onions. Sure, the usual fajitas, enchiladas, and tacos are all there, but Mercedes Martinez's kitchen also prepares steaks, burgers, and barbecue chicken, the last appropriately stuffed into an enchilada or burrito.

I'm a sucker for the chef's recommendation, so I ordered the seafood enchiladas -- two flour tortillas stuffed with "crab" (imitation surimi) and shrimp, and buried under a cheesy white sauce. Frankly, they weren't stellar, especially when compared to the more run-of-the-mill Sour Cream Enchiladas ($5.95) afloat in a tangy tomatillo sauce, but they weren't bad either.

Mercedes Martinez serves simple lunch specials (one entree, two sides: $4.95; two entrees, two sides: $5.95) and breakfast fare in addition to its hefty dinner menu. The restaurant has a sprawling deck with a handful of tables, handmade booths, and one of the prettiest live oaks in town. All in all, my reading on the restaurant is that it shows promise provided a clientele is willing to risk a little culinary adventure. What Mercedes Martinez lacks, at least in my experience, is a crowd.

-- Rebecca Chastenet de Géry

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