It's Valentina's day 

La Valentina is so tidy and stylish and professional it looks like a chain restaurant. But it's home-grown, in Benton, the new business of Rosa Rasburry and Maria Martinez; Alan Camacho is manager. It's taken the place of Dizzy's (which moved to Little Rock) on Ferguson Road and, judging by the lunch crowd the other day, it's taking a place in the locals' hearts.

“Real Mexican Food” is what La Valentina touts, but much of the menu is Tex-Mex with touches of authenticity — including the daily specials — and quite a few Norte Americano dishes added to the mix. So the menu will be familiar to anyone who's eaten in a Mexican restaurant, real or unreal, hereabout: fajitas, combination platters, specials of tacos and enchiladas, etc., with rice and beans on the side. There are also partly assimilated T-bones and ribeyes (served with rice, beans and guacamole salads) and several shrimp dishes (diabla, mojo de ajo, baha etc.). Huevos are on the lunch menu.

Three of us sat in a booth and the design-inclined among us admired the look of the menu, the sconces and light fixtures — it's a bright space, decorated on the modern-sparse side. No big sombreros and colorful blankets, or at least we didn't see any in the front dining room. If we missed them, it might be because we were concentrating on the guacamole special delivered to the table in a volcanic-stone metate ($7.99). Our waitress, apparently a purist, warned we might not like it — it is chockfull of jalapeno peppers and spices — but her fears were not realized. We dug in (with good chips, by the way) and stopped short of licking the metate only because we knew our entree was on the way, and it wasn't off the lunch menu.

Our order: soft tacos al carbon ($8.99), which come with chicken, beef or pork al pastor (shepherd-style), which is marinated. Our waitress didn't quite understand our question about the pastor-style — she described it as beef. So we ordered chicken, though as it turned out, we got beef anyway. The beef strips were well cooked, but there was a little gristle to contend with, and garnished with lots of fresh cilantro and onions. A chimichurri sauce, a tomatillo sauce and a green salsa came with the tacos, as did a small bowl of refried beans. Except for some chewy moments, this was a fine lunch, one that shouldn't follow a bucket of guacamole perhaps to be fully appreciated.

The special of the day is always an authentic dish, said Rasburry (we'd write “pronounced ‘raspberry,' ” but that seems strange). On the day of our visit the special was palmadas, fried pies (folded cornmeal quesadillas) stuffed with meat, tomatoes and cheese, a recipe from Rasburry's home town of Guanajuato. One in our party, who ordered the dish with chicken, said the combo worked well. The special came with refried beans and rice and pickled red onion, an aesthetic, as well as sweet-tart, touch. Other specials include sea bass tacos, cooked in oil and served in a cilantro sauce and empanadas, flour-dough dumplings with different fillings.

The chimichanga featured a mysteriously uncrispy fried taco, topped with just a bit of melted cheese, which our diner liked a lot, and a nice pico de gallo on the side along with the rice and beans. The theme here is that La Valentina adds to its meals something fresh and spicy to jazz up the heavy smoothness of the beans and familiarity of the rice. Nothing here was covered in melted cheese.

Now that we know what al pastor means — pork marinated in a mild adobo sauce and pineapple juice — we wish we'd ordered it. Carnitas, braised pork chunks, are also on the menu, as are chile rellenos. There are four vegetarian dishes, variations on grilled vegetables, bean burritos, cheese sauces and guacamole.

If you're a punch person, you'll have to settle for Hi-C. We went the sweet tea route, and it was just like the real sweet tea you'd get with a meat-and-three kind of place. (There's also raspberry tea on the menu, which is not a drink we believe in.) There are also Jarrito sodas from Guadalajara and Mountain Valley sparkling water from Garland County.

The cheese dip here comes with sausage or mushrooms; wings are served with ranch dressing and celery and referred to as “alitos” to stay in keeping with La Valentina's mission.

Here's something else to make you sweet on La Valentina: the dessert menu includes churros (ribbons of fried dough rolled in cinnamon and sugar) served with hot chocolate. For the brave, a fried cheesecake. For the traditionalist, flan. For the kids, sopapillas and ice cream.

La Valentina
1217 Ferguson Drive

Quick bite
Fortunately, one of us knows Benton like the back of her hand so we found La Valentina without problem. Here's what you do from Little Rock: Take the Congo Road exit from I-30 and follow the access road until it circles up and over the interstate. That's Military Road. Stay in the right hand lane and follow Military as it curves south until you come to the intersection with Ferguson (which also leads to Wal-Mart). Turn right; La Valentina will be on the left in the bright green-yellow building..

11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Other info
No alcohol. Credit cards accepted



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