Smile Politely

Casual and delicious dining at La Mixteca

My fiancé and I moved to Urbana less than a year before the pandemic, so there are many restaurants here that we first tried by ordering their food to go. In some ways, this takeout experience gave us a clearer test of the quality of a restaurant’s food. Without experiencing the décor, ambience, or service, all we were left with was the actual taste of the dishes we ordered.

We spent many weekend evenings comparing the crispiness of tortilla chips and analyzing the sweetness of sesame chicken while sitting on the couch in our pajamas and watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but post-vaccination, we were excited to return to eating inside of restaurants. Eating out makes an evening feel special. Over the last year or so, we’ve been returning to all of our favorite takeout spots to see what they are like inside.

La Mixteca was at the top of our list of Mexican restaurants. An easy five-minute drive away, it was our favorite place to get Mexican takeout in 2020. My fiancé loved their horchata, and I always enjoyed ordering the chicken fajitas. Now that we’re eating in restaurants more regularly again, we decided it was time to venture there in person.

The outside of La Mixteca is beige concrete with large glass windows. A rectangular green sign announces the name of the restaurant and a neon sign behind the windows spells out the word “OPEN.†Photo by Julia Freeman.

Photo by Julia Freeman.

Located in the strip mall behind the Walgreens on University Avenue, La Mixteca is comfortable and unassuming. Pink, blue, and yellow papel picado hung from the ceiling and colorful posters brightened up the beige walls.

A line of potted succulents and other houseplants sit on a ledge in front of a window looking out on a parking lot. Photo by Julia Freeman.

Photo by Julia Freeman.

As a houseplant afficionado, I appreciated the thriving succulents that lined the ledge in front of the windows. On a Friday night, extended families and small groups of friends filled about a third of the tables. People took their time eating, chatting and laughing with their families, or lingering over margaritas.

A person holds a menu on a white tabletop. The menu has brightly colored designs of a sombrero, stylized flowers, maracas, and papel picado on a black background. Photo by Julia Freeman.

Photo by Julia Freeman.

Looking through the massive menu, we had a tough decision ahead of us. La Mixteca has every dish you would expect at a Mexican restaurant from enchiladas to tacos to flautas as well as many unique options. Although I was tempted by a few different dishes, I couldn’t resist ordering my usual: the chicken fajitas. My fiancé chose the more adventurous route and ordered the chef’s special, for which there was only a photo and no description.

A red plastic basket lined with parchment paper and filled with tortilla chips sits on a table. A person wearing a navy-blue sweatshirt dips a chip into a bowl of red salsa nestled next to the chips. Photo by Julia Freeman.

Photo by Julia Freeman.

The service was quick and friendly. A waiter brought us a basket of tortilla chips as soon as we sat down and returned just a few minutes later to take our orders. Hot and fresh, the chips tasted delicious dunked into two different salsa options: a thin, red salsa with only a hint of spice and a green tomatillo salsa with a strong lime flavor and more intense spice.

A tall, red plastic cup filled with ice and a white liquid sits on a beige table. A straw with a paper wrapping pokes up from the top of the cup. Photo by Julia Freeman.

Photo by Julia Freeman.

Our drinks arrived soon afterwards. The horchata ($2.50) is my favorite in town. It tasted like a cool, refreshing version of rice pudding. Each sip was smooth and creamy with a touch of cinnamon. My fiancé always orders it — and if I don’t get my own, I steal sips from his glass.

A tall, glass cup filled with ice and a chartreuse liquid sits on a beige table. The cup is rimmed with salt and red flakes of chili. A straw with a paper wrapping pokes up from the top of the cup. Photo by Julia Freeman.

Photo by Julia Freeman.

I tried the regular house margarita ($3.99), which came with a spicy chili-salt rim. My favorite part of a margarita is the balance of opposites: sweet and sour, salty and refreshing. This margarita hit the mark with its well-balanced lime flavor.

A cast iron skillet piled with thin strips of chicken rests on top of a wooden holder. To the right of the skillet, a white, rectangular plate holds mounds of lettuce, cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo, refried beans with chees on top, seasoned rice, and a foil-wrapped cylinder of tortillas. Photo by Julia Freeman.

Photo by Julia Freeman.

With our appetites stoked by the chips and drinks, we were ready to dig into our meals. The chicken fajitas ($11.99) arrived with strips of chicken, green peppers, and onion sizzling on a cast iron skillet. They were accompanied by a plate of toppings — mozzarella cheese, chopped lettuce, tomato, onion, cilantro, and sour cream — along with sides of refried beans and seasoned rice. The rice was a little overcooked, but everything else was delicious. The chicken was crispy on the edges, and the grilled vegetables had the perfect amount of char. With five corn tortillas, the portions were generous, enough for me to stuff myself and have plenty left over for lunch the next day.

A white, rectangular plate holds a crispy, charred chicken thigh and leg, seven pieces of grilled shrimp, a slice of carne asada, a foil-wrapped cylinder of tortillas, a mound of refried beans with cheese on top and tortilla chips sticking out to the sides, and a scoop of bright green guacomole. Photo by Julia Freeman.

Photo by Julia Freeman.

The chef’s special ($13.99) was a meat lover’s delight of a chicken thigh and leg, grilled shrimp, and carne asada — perfect for my carnivorous fiancé. They were served alongside refried beans, pan-fried potatoes, a scoop of guacamole, and corn tortillas.

His favorite part was the shrimp. They were delicate and soft with a seasoning that tasted of chipotle and paprika. I enjoyed the chicken, which was grilled with a crispy char at the edges and flavored with adobo. The guacamole was smooth and creamy with a strong lime flavor. It provided an excellent contrast to the salty, peppery flavors of the meats and the starch of the beans and potatoes.

Photo by Julia Freeman.

As we packed up the remains of our meal, we realized the best part about leaving our couch to eat at La Mixteca: we were right across the parking lot from El Oasis, the Mexican ice cream shop. Our bellies were full, but we could make room for dessert. Our evening of eating out came to an end with scoops of spicy mango ice cream, spooned up in the warm air of early summer.

La Mixteca
510 North Cunningham Ave
M-F 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Sa-Su 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Top image by Julia Freeman.

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