There are many reasons to love Vina Morita, not just its fabulous food. Start with husband-and-wife owners Antonio Gonzalez and Brenda Bahena, who opened this, their first restaurant, less than five months ago. They run the front of the house and are warm, gracious and helpful — buzzing about but not lurking.
Then there's the cool vibe of the place — a restored historic spot on Central Avenue across from the Hot Springs Visitors Center, where people fill their jugs with the city's renowned spring water. The floors are hardwood, the bar is stone and the art and lighting are cool at Vina Morita. It's hip in a family-friendly sort of way. One or more of Brenda's and Antonio's children are likely to be hanging around, and other relatives pop in to help with the kids and lend a hand in other ways. It feels homey, as a family-owned restaurant should.
The wide-ranging menu goes way beyond the Tex-Mex staples Arkies have come to consider quintessential "Mexican food." Yes, you'll find cheese dip, guacamole, fajitas, quesadillas, nachos and even a taco salad. But there are many other specialties from central Mexico, the area chef Eli Tapia hails from — dishes featuring shrimp, fish, steak, and even a mixed grill that includes all that plus sausage and lobster.
Thin, crisp chips and two distinctly different salsas come to every table. The fresh-tasting tomato-based salsa is zippy without being overly spicy, while the tomatillo-based green salsa is subtle and smoky.
Chipotle gives the smooth yellow cheese dip a smoky flavor, and flecks of pepper provide a bit of heat. The guacamole is classic — avocado, onion, tomato, a bit of diced jalapeno, a nice squeeze of lime juice and not much else. It's chunky and about as good as guacamole gets. The queso and guac are $3.99 each for a decent-sized "small" serving and $5.99 for large.
We both had decided on fish for entrees, but one of us strayed when we heard a special that night was lamb shank, a real weakness of ours. This one was massive — rich and tender like pot roast. It was accompanied by half a hollow green bell pepper filled with a thick sauce that has a red-pepper base and a hint of sweet. It dressed up the delicately spiced lamb and worked well with the buttery, slightly salty risotto over which the lamb is served, the lamb drippings soaking in nicely. (Seen risotto recently in a Mexican restaurant? How about penne pasta with Bolognese sauce and meatballs — $9.99?) The lamb was $29.99, not out of line for osso bucco, and we worked on leftovers for a couple of days.
The Tilapia en Salsa Chipotle (a bargain at $13.99) was another rock star — a huge, thick slab of blackened, flaky tilapia served over rice with a cheese sauce pooled around the whole, a nice touch that let the spiciness of the fish and delicateness of the rice come through. There are five desserts, none made on premises, but the mango flan ($5.99) was serviceable. It was creamy — more like creme brulee in texture than a typical custard — served with a strawberry glaze. The dessert, like all the dishes, was beautifully presented, clearly a focus for Chef Eli.
Our biggest regret? That this was a one-evening, one-meal visit to Hot Springs, and we didn't get a chance to sample other enticing dishes. We've heard great things about the shrimp-stuffed avocado ($8.99), lightly fried avocados stuffed with shrimp and served with sauteed mushrooms on a bed of mixed greens; and the Camarones al Ajillo ($15.99), large shrimp drizzled with a buttery sauce, salsa, garlic and olive oil.
But we'll be back — maybe even on Saturday night, when free salsa dancing lessons, we're told, mean the place is hopping.