La Piñata opened its first restaurant in Hayward in 1983 and has since expanded to five other Bay Area locations. Apparently they are doing quite well. We patronized the original Hayward location the other day, and were a bit surprised by what we found.
This restaurant is tiny. Like, the size of my mom’s living room tiny. I counted 14 tables in the whole joint, and that’s with very little walking room in between. When we arrived it was packed. Note to readers, 6.30pm on a Friday is actually quite busy for La Piñata. Tons of people already seemed to have gotten the message and were traipsing in and out procuring take-away. Good call. But we were committed to a dine-in dinner, so we stood in wait for a table.
This is how I learned to do the La Piñata shuffle. There is no semblance of a waiting area, and there really isn’t even a place for a single person to stand and not be in the way of waiters rushing to tables and patrons meandering over to the bathroom. We stood smack in the middle of the room, eerily looming over adjacent tables not two feet away, and tactfully avoiding wait staff and other customers with a sort of two and fro shuffle every 15 or so seconds. It was an odd introduction to be sure.
After about six minutes we were approached by the hostess (the waiters paid us no mind) who told us that a table would likely be ready in about ten more minutes. We proceeded to re-station ourselves by the door where we hovered over the shoulders of different dining customers, scurrying out of the way each time the door opened, and still doing a sort of tango when a waiter rushed by. The hostess was indeed correct in her time estimate, however; a table in the quietest corner of the place (which is, notably, less than ten feet from the noisiest area) was ready in about ten minutes.
We then were able to tend to the reason in which we came – which was not, for the record, to wait awkwardly in too-small aisleways – and had a look at the menu. To be honest, most Mexican restaurants have approximately the same menu. It’s not like other types of food that have a standard set of ingredients and like to change things up a bit (Italian, Indian, American). Most Mexican restaurants seem to have about 90% of the same stuff as the rest of the restaurants. This always disappoints me a bit as I like a nice surprise.
But, I was prepared for the menu having looked online before going, and selected a mildly pricey shrimp in garlic sauce dish. It came with the standard rice and beans, corn tortillas (delicious, by the way), and, oddly, a side salad. We’re all accustomed to the Mexican meal side salad – about ten flakes of lettuce, some grated carrot bits on top, a few cubes of sliced tomato and possibly a splash of dressing if you’re lucky. This was above and beyond the call of Mexican Salad Duty – half my plate was covered with mixed iceberg, carrots, cucumber, beets and slathered a bit too generously with thousand island (my other option had been ranch). And all that without a mention of this inclusion on the menu. Odd? A bit. Undesired? Not at all.
Boyfriend went with a veggie burrito/cheese enchilada combo with rice and beans. It was reasonably priced (something around $8) and was quite filling. He enjoyed the veggie burrito because it had fresh guac, but the ingredients were a bit disproportionately organized throughout the burrito – in engineer-speak, it was neither homogeneous nor isotropic. I do recognize though that it’s hard to make broad statements since veggie burrito eaters all seem to have different opinions about this particular food item. Overall he was pleased, so all was well.
I thought my food was pretty good, though it was obviously too much for me to actually eat. I should have realized beforehand that my garlic shrimp would come drowning in a bowl of butter sauce, but this was nothing that a quick fork-lifesaver couldn’t fix (extracting shrimps from said sauce and proceeding to de-tail and eat to avoid the 1/2 cup of butter that came with my dish). Rice: good. Beans: good. Corn tortillas: really good. Salsa: a bit too hot for me, but still good.
As for the corn tortillas (which they must make there – there’s no way those are store-bought), Boyfriend noted something rather interesting to me about an alternative way for me to eat this always-awkward side dish. For some reason when tortillas are provided alongside my meal, I’m never sure what to do with them (excluding fajita meals). I always have the urge to carefully pack a nice ratio of each of the other food items on the table into a tortilla and eat it that way. But I don’t like to eat food packed into a tortilla. It’s difficult and messy and I’d rather apportion each item individually instead of rely on whatever ratio happens to fall into my next tortilla bite. In Mexico, apparently, you just roll up the tortilla and eat it by itself, alongside the other side dishes. It worked fabulously and was delicious as a stand-alone side, especially with a bit of shrimp, rice, and beans already waiting in my mouth. Good idea!
The rest of the meal went smoothly: quick and efficient service, nice waiter, good food, and a bit more breathing room when the place cleared out a little after we’d been there a half hour or so. I’d certainly try it again, and would check out the other locations as well; apparently they differ quite a bit in ambiance and size.