Smile Politely

Add Fiesta Cafe to your rotation tonight

I could eat Mexican food every day. Although I am a devout Huaraches Moroleon fan, my date and I decided to spread out our precious food dollars and patron the longstanding Fiesta Café over on First Street, just south of University Avenue.

For the purposes of this article, judgments of authenticity will be left to those decidedly less “basic” than I. Instead, I seek three essential ingredients in my Mexican adventures: good price, hefty portions, and plenty of flavor.

When we sat down, our server promptly introduced herself and we ordered a house margarita and queso fundido ($6.95), a queso dip made from six different types of cheese. Yes, please.

We snacked on chips and salsa, which were pretty standard fare. The chips tasted like they had been waiting to be eaten for a little too long, but I appreciated having two salsa options: the larger bowl held a bright and fresh mild salsa and the saucer tasted more of onions and ended with some heat. I prefer more salt on my chips, but was quickly sated when the queso and margarita arrived.

I was happy with my middle-of-the-line Herradura Silver Fresh margarita. At $7.50 for 12 ounces, it delivered a satisfying ratio of tequila, triple sec, and freshly-squeezed lime juice. Because I prefer a smaller quality drink over a gargantuan fishbowl (that you hope has alcohol in it!), I wasn’t disappointed.

We made quick work of our queso. A cast-iron skillet creation of melted cheeses, chorizo, and a variety of peppers, it happily lacked the Velveeta quality often associated with quesos at other restaurants. We could see strands of cheese stretching as we dunked into the dip, and pieces of chorizo gave it a nice meatiness for our chips to grab onto.

I ordered the Alex Tacos, the most popular item, akin to carnitas but with ground pork, and my partner in crime asked our server for a recommendation. She put in an order for him that wasn’t on the menu: a chicken, black bean and avocado burrito baked with salsa verde and cheese. He also ordered refried beans and guacamole, despite her best efforts to warn us that we were about to get a lot of food.

She was right.

Let’s get the boring stuff out of the way: first, the refried beans were pretty bland; certainly nothing to write home about. We didn’t pay too much attention to the guacamole given all we ordered, but if I had gotten it with my chips I would have been pleased. Nothing crazy, but it was chunky, fresh, and aptly-seasoned.

I had been craving a carnita-style taco, and the Alex tacos did not disappoint. With piping hot soft yellow corn tortillas, heaps of tender ground pork, generous amounts of onions and cilantro, and some of the best salsa verde I’ve had, I was in taco heaven.

If you’ve never tried this type of taco when ordering out, please do try this. At first, the tortillas (there are two) hit your tongue with a slightly fried and mild corn flavor. The pork then hits a darker, saltier note, followed quickly by bright salsa verde with acidic onions and refreshing cilantro. I’m a sour cream fanatic, so I added some every other bite or so to get my daily dosage of fat and switch up the flavors every now and then.

We both agreed the Alex tacos were the highlight of the meal. The burrito, while quite filling and tasty, couldn’t live up to the greatness of my tacos. It might be that black beans, chicken, and avocado are all fairly bland ingredients, or that the salsa and cheese baked on top seemed to get lost somewhere along the way. Regardless, he was a happy camper once he added heaps of guacamole and some salsa on top.

Full to the brim but undeterred, we gamely ordered dessert: fried ice cream, with chocolate syrup (you can ask for other flavors, but I’m not sure why you would). It came out quickly and hit the spot. The tortilla was deep-fried to airy and crunchy perfection, and our spoons battled it out to get every bite of those signature honey-flavored corn flakes.

As we finished and waited on our check, we thought deeply about what we had just done to our digestive systems and considered the whole experience. I had heard before going that Fiesta Café was a “hit or miss” for several people, so we strategically ordered based strongly off our server’s recommendations. From our appetizers to drinks to entrees, this was a good call. Though everything wasn’t perfect, we left fully satisfied.

All said and done, our tab (before tip) was $50 for a drink, special queso, guacamole, refried beans, Alex tacos, the huge burrito, and fried ice cream. We thought this was more than fair.

Will Fiesta Café unseat Huarches as our top choice? Maybe not, but we are glad we gave it a try and will definitely return for more Alex Tacos and queso fundido. The combination of fantastic service by our server, who kept our chips refilled and recommended excellent favorites and off-menu items, with A+ quality at a reasonable cost, demands a future date night. While there are always some caveats, by-and-large we enjoyed our evening.

Fiesta Café is located at 216 S 1st St, Champaign, and open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. 

All photos by Emily Cross. 

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