Shopping at the Lake Elsinore Outlets may result in “good cheap” purchases, but it always results in a “bad cheap” lunch. The nearest restaurants are a mile and a half south, where the road formerly known as Ortega Highway spills out onto the Mojave Freeway, and the choices are a grim list of greasy chains: McDonald's, Farmer Boys, Subway, Der Wienerschnitzel. There's an outpost of Juan Pollo along the lakeshore, but that's a 10-minute drive and requires more initiative than most outlet shoppers are willing to display.
Fortunately, the outlets themselves finally have a real restaurant, allowing the intrepid OC bargain hunter who has braved the FasTrak lanes of the 91 to have a real meal without having to give up the parking space and get back in the 150°F interior of the car.
Open only a week and a half, Plaza Bonita has the distinct advantage of being the only sit-down restaurant in the entire huge outlet mall. The only other non-sweets are a pretzel stand and the “Hot Eats” part of a Dairy Queen.
Expectations need to be set, however; this is a Mexican-American restaurant, a place that sells tacos y burritos para taco-flavored kisses, plus a few things actually recognizable to a Mexican traveling in the
909 951. It's also–did this come up already?–in an outlet mall.
The menu contains a parts list of every Mexican antojito ever served in South OC (tacos, burritos, tortas, quesadillas, even nachos) as well as plates of food, enchiladas and molletes, a kind of open-faced, smaller torta, a very common Mexican snack.
Birria is available on the regular menu; weekends see menudo and posole (red posole) on the menu as well. The posole was quite good, though not up to the high bar set by the in-laws' Christmas posole. The hominy was not overpowering, and the chunks of pork were tender (though slightly stringy, like the lean pork used in century egg congee). The pork fat in the dish was as soft as a pillow, though, dissolving on my tongue. One suggestion: serve cabbage on the plate of accompaniments, not lettuce. It's sweeter, crunchier and more traditional.
Quesadillas–what a chilango would call sincronizadas (flour tortillas and cheese)–were just crispy enough and made with decent cheese, not the processed garbage served in so many places. Dipped into the salsas, this was a kids' delight.
Al pastor, though not cut from a trompo, was charred just enough to lend the required smoky flavor. The pineapple juice in the marinade was obvious, manifested as an underlying sweetness. The only complaint was the pebbly texture; larger pieces would have been more satisfying. Wrapped up in tortillas (machine-made, not hechas a mano) with salsa, they were very good, and accompanied by the usual, unremarkable combo-plate rice and good, slightly porky beans.
The grilled chicken was very salty; there is clearly a heavy use of Knorr seasoning in the marinade, which provided some interest until it was identified and then simply became overbearing.
Where Plaza Bonita stands out is with their salsas. Their answer to salsa cruda is a thick, scoopable tomato salsa with diamond-shaped bites of onion, quite a bit of serrano chile, lots of cilantro and just enough lime juice. The thicker red salsa was a stunning, almost oily decoction of guajillo chiles which had obviously been toasted on the grill. A slow burn on the back of the throat; this clung appealingly to tortillas. A fiery avocado salsa and a chunky raw tomatillo salsa verde rounded out the salsas; the bar was also stocked with excellent, still-crunchy carrots en escabeche, cilantro, chopped onion and limes–Mexican limes, not the large Persian green lemons gabachos call limes.
Service was very friendly, though questions about ingredients had to be passed back as interruptions to the chef. Prices were also very reasonable: $6 for posole, $8 for a combo-plate of al pastor.
Is Plaza Bonita revelatory, a place worthy of a pilgrimage down the dusty 15 freeway? No.
Is it good? Yes. It would do well even in such Mexican-heavy places as Anaheim or Downey. Taking into account its location, it is a godsend.
Other outlet mall operators take note: cheap stores and good food can coëxist.
Plaza Bonita, 17600 Collier Rd., Building F, Unit 147A, Lake Elsinore (in the Lake Elsinore Outlets, across from the Nike Outlet); (951) 674-5000.