AFTER an all-American day at the beach, hungry diners are venturing west of Hampton Beach -- but south of the border -- for a Mexican fiesta of food.
After six years in Exeter on Portsmouth Avenue, and now four years in Hampton on Lafayette Road, Las Olas (the waves) Taqueria is serving up a bounty of fresh-made, wholesome Mexican food worthy of praise.
The menu features gluten-free offerings, "vegan and vegetarian when you want it to be," according to the menu, no lard, no MSG, and locally raised meat when possible, including chorizo sausage from Kelly Brook Farm in Greenland.
After a delightful day soaking up seaside sunshine, we feasted on fajitas, queued up for quesadillas, tackled a taco and sampled a special salad — all at very reasonable prices, enjoyed in spacious dining quarters in a sparkle-clean young restaurant.
Beer and margaritas are on the menu, along with a bevy of other refreshing beverages, along with nicely priced — and sized — sides including warm corn tortilla chips with pico de gallo, guacamole or melted cheese, nachos, vegetables, corn and cheese quesadillas and sides of rice or beans and salsa.
There was a special pineapple chipotle salsa this day that was available as a meal add-on or a side order, and worth noting. We enjoyed the cool, refreshing, diced pineapple chunks in the salsa on our salad and quesadilla.
At Las Olas your order is prepared at the counter. You can add from a dozen or more ingredients displayed right in front of you as servers build your meal. But a word of caution: Do not overdo it. It's easy to be swept up in hunger and enthusiasm and start adding things, and by doing so you risk compromising the dish. But it's tough to hold back, with tempting tubs of fresh tomatoes, sour cream, diced onions, pico de gallo, guacamole, cheese, salsa, cilantro and lime, lettuce, mushrooms, sweet potatoes ... the list goes on.
And that's in addition to the basic core ingredients making up the beef and meat and bean and cheese dishes you order.
Our Steak Quesadilla was loaded with fresh grilled steak chunks atop a Monterey jack cheese quesadilla, and served with rice, pico de gallo, lettuce, sour cream, the pineapple salsa, cilantro and lime. The grill-pressed quesadilla was sliced into fourths, and I piled too many ingredients on top, requiring a knife and fork. But, no matter. While I managed to make a mess of it, I thoroughly enjoyed eating my way down to the steak, which was tender and juicy.
Throughout our meal, we opted for no beans, but bean lovers would note their vegetarian base, which fits Las Olas's commitment to quality, with its all-homemade lineup of sauces, salsa and guacamole.
We limited the add-ons for the spiced-Chicken Fajitas, served with steamed hot corn tortillas, so the flavorful chicken was able to dominate the dish. It was served with sour cream, guacamole and rice complemented by peppers, mushrooms, sweet potatoes instead of beans. Outstanding.
A soft-flour tortilla Chorizo Taco was also ordered rather simply, a combination of the slightly-spicy sausage with onions and sour cream and pico de gallo just waiting for hot sauce to jazz it up.
An all-encompassing salad topped off our table, with the bed of fresh lettuce graced by ground Ancho beef, and about half the ingredients at the ordering lineup. We overdid it, by a mile, but it made a great lunch for one the next day.
Once you are inside, Las Olas is as bright and cheerful as any beachfront restaurant that cares to put quality in its presentation. Nice artwork of waves (of course) adorn the walls. Bright pastel colors are mixed with bold Mexican strokes and multi-colored chairs and tables.
A nice sideboard lines up the utensils, hot sauce and napkins, and other tools of dining so patrons can arrange themselves at their table of choice.
The restaurant seats more than 60, in two dining rooms, which is deceiving from the outside until you realize Las Olas takes up two storefronts in the small strip mall it shares with an ice cream store and a large chain drug store.
A room with a television and tables is also available for parties and special events. The main dining room has a long counter for ordering, and a matching long counter (creatively built with indented places) with stools for many pairs of diners to sit across from each other, and a smattering of tables.
Fountain drinks are self-serve, with beer and specialty bottled drinks and margaritas available at the counter.
Once seated, dig in and enjoy a distinctly flavorful, rewarding, value-added Mexican meal — in a town as Yankee American as they come.