Is it possible for a restaurant in a big green building in a neighborhood with very few non-fast-food options to be labeled a hidden gem? Maybe, but La Rueda (2317 Oakland Blvd.) in East Fort Worth south of Meadowbrook Drive, won’t be hidden for long, if my recent lunch there was any indication.
That area sorely needed a good, independently owned breakfast, lunch, and dinner spot, and La Rueda more than fills the niche. It’s not just that the Tex-Mex/Mex-Mex eatery is the best choice in a barren culinary landscape (or the skinniest kid in fat camp, as my dad used to say) — it’s good enough to be a destination spot for anyone on that side of town.
The brightly painted building sticks out like a sore thumb — from the Jolly Green Giant. The yard-sale bric-a-brac on the front porch of the converted two-story house hints at the slightly eccentric interior. The décor inside La Rueda (Spanish for wagon wheel) looks as though someone shook up a bottle of quirk and sprayed it all over the place. Imagine an Old West taxidermist who has converted his house into a restaurant, and you’ll have captured its ragtag charisma. The stuffed wildcat mounted on the air conditioning duct and cowboy artifacts hanging from the ceilings give the place that “eccentric uncle’s house” vibe.
The food is anything but quirky. Everything my lunch buddies and I ordered was fresh, well-seasoned, and delicious. The salsa, which comes in both spicy and slightly less spicy varieties, tasted like it had been made minutes before arriving at our table. The spicier version isn’t quite runny nose-inducing, but it does boast a throat-tickling kick. The heat doesn’t mask the vibrant flavor of the chunks of tomatoes, cilantro and jalapeños. For spice cowards, the milder salsa has all the flavor and none of the tears.
The bistek a la Mexicana ($7) showcased an attention to detail seldom found in hole-in-the-wall Mexican food joints. The presentation was close to artful, with stewed tomatoes, bell peppers, and thinly sliced jalapeños draped over a generous serving of flank steak with the assurance of a Jackson Pollock painting. The steak was tender, the veggies were cooked al dente, and both tasted fresh and comforting. The chicken fajita lunch special ($5.75) had a similar setup, though curiously it wasn’t served on the customary sizzling-hot plate. Though I missed the sound of the sizzle, the moist grilled chicken was tender, and the presentation was as pretty as the bistek’s.
While the brisket platter ($8.99) may sound like the cursory gringo fare served at other Mexican restaurants, La Rueda’s far exceeded my admittedly low expectations. I’m not suggesting that the thin slices of tender brisket, slathered in a tangy barbecue sauce, were the pinnacle of barbecue excellence, but, relatively speaking, it was pretty good. What really blew me away was the accompanying mac & cheese, drenched in a sharp queso blanco.
If I had one bone to pick, it would be with the service. The dining room was busy, so my guests and I tried be patient with our server. That being said, there were long periods where we didn’t see her, and drink glasses went mighty dry. The place is new, and service is usually the last component of a restaurant to fall into place. Until it does, be prepared for your meal to be a little languid.
The people who live nearby have been (pun intended) starving for something like La Rueda. The restaurant crew came to this year’s second weekend of Prairie Fest to pass out menus, so it appears they are motivated to promote the place. The food doesn’t reinvent the (wagon) wheel, but it’s very good, reasonably priced, and should get those rugged Eastside pioneers across their culinary desert.
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