Familiar Mexi-fare 

La Botaña takes the safe road to speedy lunches

There are two kinds of Mexican restaurants: those that have a "Speedy Gonzalez" on their lunch menu and those that don't. The ones that do have free chips and salsa on your table, a cornucopia of cheesy combo plates with bubbling grease and toddlers orbiting the restaurant like shrieking, squawking satellites. With the huge range of more authentic and interesting choices around, you can see why many avoid the speedy option -- and the restaurants that offer it -- all together. La Botaa fits the "Speedy Gonzalez" criteria, but it is distinctly better than many similar restaurants.

A friend encouraged me to try La Botaa, an orange beacon of cheer in an otherwise depressing strip of stores along Chamblee's Savoy Drive. This colorful former fast-food joint has been retrofitted into a friendly family eatery vibrant with color and appointed with Mexican artwork. La Botaa provides precisely what most who live in the area want: friendly, English-speaking servers, a full bar with the ubiquitous frozen margaritas and inexpensive, familiar and filling food -- complete with the Speedy Gonzalez plate on the lunch menu. Although they've taken the safe road (our waiter was surprised when I asked if they served the traditional and popular tripe stew, Menudo), you easily can find dishes that are a notch above the bland Americanized Mexi-fare.

Appetizers here are mostly the usual -- lots of cheese dip in one form or another. We liked the Quesadillas Surtidas, an amalgam of beans, chicken, beef and cheese between crisp-seared tortillas. One of these alone could make a meal. La Botaa's chips are fresh and made on the premises, as is their salsa. You can even find a bit of cilantro discretely added to the salsa, which servers bring in a mini carafe so you can refill your own bowl or pour directly down your gullet if so moved.

La Botaa does best with its especialidades, some of which cost more than the combo dinners, but you'll find more flavor and texture here. The Tacos de Carne Asada, grilled beef offered up with soft tacos, a hot tomatillo sauce and pico de gallo, were good, especially when topped with a bit of fresh lime juice. Another winner is the Chilaquiles Mexicanos, a sort of casserole of corn chips, chicken breast, cheese and ranchero sauce (tomato-based), a comforting but not-too-heavy meal for a cold winter night. If you're looking for a very high-calorie experience, try La Changa, a deep-fried burrito filled with meat and beans and topped with cheese and guacamole.

I ran into trouble when I tried a combination dinner here. The sheer volume of processed cheese and low-grade ground beef smothered any hint of other flavors or textures in the chile relleno, chalupa and enchilada piled on the plate. The chile relleno was particularly disappointing, as little of the chile itself was unidentifiable amidst the layers of gloppy yellow cheese.

La Botaa offers sopapillas and flan for dessert, both of which are sweet and quite serviceable. The flan comes tricked out sundae-style with whipped cream, chocolate and a cherry that nearly overwhelm its subtle caramel flavor.

Go to La Botaa not for culinary adventure but for its user-friendliness. You'll find it especially appealing if you have an interest in Tex-Mex fare that is a notch above the usual (if you order the right thing), a hankering for frozen margaritas or a few hungry kids to feed. Once you've visited a few times, the staff will start to recognize you, remember what you ordered and make sure you feel at home



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