[There are a lot of people new to this site, who may have missed this review when I first published it back in 1996. I Be sure to read the comments below – priceless!]
Driving west on Burnside, one can’t help but notice the warm glow of the sign in the distance. La Campana beckons from a block away. “Come to my warm embrace. I alone can satisfy your hunger.” From the time you pull into the ample parking lot, you’ll feel comfortable. From the lowest college student to the tired executive to the most drunken denizen of the Pearl District, to the tired old socialite from the West hills in her aging Mercedes, it’s like you’ve seen it a hundred times before. “Welcome home, my friend.”
Yes, they have a parking lot. Hard to find in most downtown restaurants, there is plenty of space here, and turnover is pretty quick. If all the spots are full, you can go around the block a couple of times, and most likely something will open up. This is one of the many reasons La Campana is such a find.
The dining room is quite striking: a naughty, smoke-free, platinum sophisticate of a space. It is obvious they showered money on the interior. Large windows on three sides brush away the Mexican hole-in-the-wall image; you know you won’t forget this meal for some time. Light spills in on sunny days, making the room feel warm and inviting. The suppleness of the dining room’s chairs makes me wish I’d worn shorts, just to feel the coolness on the backs of my naked legs. During the evening hours, the space frequently fills with scene-sniffing college students looking to satisfy their bottomless appetites. A large open kitchen takes up an entire side of the room, giving ample opportunity to watch the staff at work. They are a finely tuned machine, turning out remarkably direct and unfussy dishes in a minimal amount of time. No finicky mole here, La Campana strives for and achieves the ultimate in Sonora style cooking.
I hate to judge a book by its cover, but the menu is like a sign; a dream design – every restaurant should be like this. Lots of brightly colored pictures bring it to life, making it glow, giving you a good idea of the food to come. Even better are the prices. At lunchtime, I’ve watched struggling college students indulging in the full range of available options. Since everything is made to order, you can customize any dish to your liking.
Campana’s appetizers will leave you gasping. Sumptuous nachos with a multiplicity of ingredients and rivers of silky sour cream intrigue as you watch the remarkably fluid cheese run into every crevice until the entire dish trembles under your touch. It is almost like Thai food; taste carefully and you can pick out incredible saltiness from the beef, runny sweetness from the cheese, a piquant sourness from the sour cream, and spiciness from a side of hot sauce. You will feel you have truly gone south of the border. If money is an issue, you can still get astonishing yet denuded nachos, dressed in the tempting, yet minimalist attire of translucent cheese.
Next, try the tostada, a crackling tortilla piled high with unctuous beans, crisp iceberg lettuce, impossibly thin strips of cheddar cheese, and jewel-like tomatoes. As you bite into the crusty tortilla, it will explode in a clamorous cascade of ingredients, blanketing your lap if you don’t move quickly! Tacos are the siren call here, so it would be a shame not to have at least one. The beef is simmered in twelve authentic seasonings and spices, giving it an unmistakable taste. Lovingly coated with brash sour cream, carefully shredded lettuce, more tomatoes, and a chewy layer of cheese, this is a taco you will remember for some time.
The burritos are many and varied. La Campana runs frequent specials; now they offer crisp romaine lettuce with Caesar dressing, marinated chicken with impossibly precise grill marks, and crunchy red tortilla strips, all wrapped in a soft, grilled tortilla. It’s like having a zesty fiesta in your hand! But don’t stop there; a slightly less avant-garde combination reigns supreme: a soft tortilla; perfumed beef; perfectly sliced, delicate little strips of lettuce; a hailstorm of tomatoes; and finally, an irresistible tongue of sour cream protruding from the end like a bewitching temptress. This is an entrée you’ll remember the next morning!
If all this is too much, request your meal “Fresco”. The heavier ingredients in any dish will be swapped out with a zesty mix of impossibly red diced tomatoes, chewy onions, and the mildest cilantro, leaving only a ghost of the original, fattening flavors. You’ll never know what to expect, leaving every meal an exciting adventure in new tastes.
Finally, we get to desserts. The standout here is an apple empanada, lying alluringly in its soft paper wrapper like a Girl Scout camp is alluring to a pubescent boy who can just see their boat dock across the rich blue waters of the lake if he climbs to the highest peak of his cabin roof. This is one hot dessert that will bring out the roof-climbing urge in all of us!! With the first bite, the apple filling may seem a bit dry, but that will quickly be mitigated by the oleaginous moisture that streams from the crust. This is unlike any dessert you have ever had in Mexico!
Complaints are few. Timing from the kitchen definitely needs work. In every visit, the appetizers and entrees have come out of the kitchen at the same time. Some dishes are overly complicated with a multitude of ingredients; one burrito has seven different layers! Finally, little attention seems to be paid to the use of seasonal ingredients. I’d like to see more of a rotation by the time of year. Still, these are minor quibbles for such an indulgent interpretation of classic Sonoran cooking.
Their website is stunning! A must-see, it also includes the full menu, hours, and directions. La Campana Website