There are phrases you almost can't use because their meanings are so particular to the receiver. "God" is like that, or "Scott Norwood." A food writer has to be careful saying "Mexican cuisine." To some, it engenders visions of giant, flour tortillas stuffed full of rice and other fillings. For those who've traveled in Mexico, it might mean seafood or fiery soups of innards; for others, Tex-Mex or fajitas.
Arturo Martinez is hedging by calling Paola's a "Burrito Place and Mexican Grill." Yes, there is a menu section for "giant burritos," popular with the college kids. "But in Mexico," Martinez maintains, "nobody eats burritos. Well, maybe in the North, but these are, you know, an American invention."
At Paola's (named for his daughter), Martinez, his sister Isabel Martinez, and his wife HortenciaHenriquez serve simple, homemade fare in the style he got used to growing up in Mexico City. This means many variations on tortillas with fillings and toppings, a couple of soups, and tortas (Mexican sandwiches). From that simple description, the menu unfolds like a chaos equation.
My favorite instances of the tortilla genres are the flautas, corn tortillas filled with chicken and deep fried (in vegetable oil), then topped with guacamole and sour cream. They come three to a plate with copious quantities of rice and refried beans for just $6.99 (all plates have rice and beans). The rice is particularly nice, with a touch of tomato to compliment the aromatic spices. If you prefer flautas with beef, ask for the taquitos plate, with seasoned ground beef instead of chicken ($6.99).
While you wait, help yourself to Paola's corn chips and salsa. The chips are fried fresh, with much better flavor and texture than their bagged brethren. Paola's salsa is also its own.
In Mexico, tacos are usually soft corn tortillas, but Martinez doesn't serve those because the ones he gets don't stay soft when heated. So, the soft taco plate has three flour tortillas filled with chicken or beef, lettuce, tomato, and cheese ($5.99). You can also get individual soft tacos with grilled chicken or steak, homemade pulled pork or chorizo, shredded beef or chicken, or guacamole ($2.49).
Martinez worked as a baker in Mexico City for 20 years before immigrating to Texas, when he worked for a regional chain called Ninfas. He then went to Utica with a member of the Ninfas family to start a small restaurant, before starting Paola's last year. As a small, family-run Mexican restaurant, it's akin to El Rincon Mexicano, but without the drive to Sodus or Canandaigua.
We're just scratching the surface here. There are crisp tacos with shredded chicken or ground beef ($5.99 for plates or $1.69 singly). A chimichanga plate --- a deep-fried burrito --- comes with chicken or beef for $5.99. Tamales, cornhusks filled with meat and cheese then steamed, are $7.99. Tostadas are flat, crisp, corn tortillas with most any kind of topping (plates for $5.99-$6.99, singles for $2.29-$2.99). Chorizo tostadas, featuring Martinez's own chorizo, really rock.
Can't make up your mind? Try a combination plate. Viva La Mexico has a pork tamale, a cheese enchilada, and carnitas (fried roast pork) for $8.99. Paola's Special is all chicken, with an enchilada, a flauta, and a crispy taco.
There are also various taco salads, and two simple soups. The tortilla soup is a chicken broth with chunks of chicken, strips of corn tortilla, and pico de gallo. Fresh cilantro gives it a fresh, aromatic appeal. It's a full meal with a side of rice and warm flour tortillas ($5.29). The black bean soup claims to be vegan, and maybe it shouldn't be (I found it a bit bland).
Paola's also has a list of vegetarian plates, including three veggie, spinach, or cheese enchiladas topped with tomatillo sauce and jack cheese ($6.89). Veggie or spinach burritos and veggie chimichanga plates are $5.99. And kids' plates, including rice and beans or French fries, are $3.99.
Arturo Martinez is a host you want to patronize, warm with a big smile. Paola's is simple and very clean, not at all a dive. Order and pay at the counter, and someone brings your food. Meanwhile, get your own chips. It feels casual and inviting. Paola's also does takeout, and delivers through U of R Food Express.
The menu really does go on and on. Martinez bakes the bread for the tortas, which sound "really delish," as my bro would say. And there are fajitas, wraps, quesadillas, cheese dips... you get the picture. Everything is affordable, and the free chips make it a bargain. Parking? Not so great in that funky little fork, but nothing is perfect.
Paola's Burrito Place, 1921 South Avenue, 271-3655. Hours: Mondays to Saturdays 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sundays 12 to 10 p.m.
Max Chophouse just brought the steakhouse concept back to Rochester, and the new year has brought another. The Peter Geyer Steakhouse has opened at the Brookwood Inn in Bushnell's Basin, serving lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and dinner starting at 5 every night. Steak and eggs are on the breakfast menu seven mornings a week (248-9300).
--- Michael Warren Thomas
Michael Warren Thomas can be heard weekends on WYSL 1040 AM. Tune in on Saturday mornings for gardening, restaurants, and Finger Lakes travel, and on Sunday mornings for Toronto restaurants and wine. www.SavorLife.com.