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Plastic? Fantastic!

La Vista's cheap patio furniture and outdoor ambience set the mood for its home-style fare

For years my family, unlike most suburbanites, who prefer the careful landscaping of their own backyards, has hosted parties in the driveway. The idea is to be close to the action, not safely sequestered from it, even if the action is nothing more than hollering at speeding cars or sizing up the baby-sitter's prom date. For these soirees, we break out the plastic patio furniture, a no-frills touch that reflects the "menu" for the gathering: lots of simple food, not to mention jugs of wine and mismatched six-packs that the guests bring. I have little doubt that this personal history of pushing the pavement is what makes me instantly bond with La Vista.

The gimmick of the tiny dinner-only bistro is BYOB. When my husband and I heard there was a corking fee, we expected an upscale eatery with a snippy sommelier to open our wine. Instead, we were greeted -- while still standing in the strip-center parking lot -- by a perky hostess in baggy jeans and a La Vista T-shirt that read "bigger, better, fatter" on the back. The "fatter" refers to a popular chicken-breast dish called the Big, Fat Chick. Not exactly a politically correct name, but it loudly trumpeted the casual nature of La Vista.

The hostess took our names, grabbed our bottle, corked it and hollered to a busboy for two glasses. We were still in the parking lot. She then poured the wine and told us to have a seat in the lounge, which was two rows of plastic lawn chairs lined up in a parking space! There, a group of Gen-Xers mingled with the Tanglewood set, all with grocery bags full of beer and wine at their feet. (Incidentally, if you forget your own libations, a liquor store conveniently located next door can help, but be aware that the owner knows a thing or two about supply and demand.)

Baby, it's hot outside, but that's still the best spot to sample chef-owner Greg Gordon's fare.
Amy Spangler
Baby, it's hot outside, but that's still the best spot to sample chef-owner Greg Gordon's fare.

Most of the cafe's seating is on the sidewalk, providing a full view of passing cars against the backdrop of Fountainview's Apartment Row. Inside, the cramped corner space is trendy chic: an open kitchen, checkerboard floors, muted wall tones and hip minimalist photography. We opted to stay outdoors, mostly because of my claustrophobia. As much as we loved the ambience, we didn't expect much from the meal. The menu was heavy on pizza and pasta. Like most foodies, we had moved away from that fad and onto the soon-to-be-passé trend of New American comfort foods. So imagine our surprise to find specials such as braised lamb shank ($19) and grilled pork chops ($16).

My husband, who had sworn off restaurant pork chops because they never compare to his home-grilled version, succumbed. He was glad he did. The tender, well-seasoned chop included the trendy but cumbersome bone and was served with onions and mushrooms in a hearty brandy broth. It was towering atop one of the best sides I've ever encountered: Billed as mashed sweet potatoes, the side was actually mashed potatoes with sweet potatoes and cheese mixed in. Some excellent grilled asparagus rounded out the plate.

I couldn't resist ordering the Big, Fat Chick ($12), given the rock-star T-shirt treatment it was afforded. The size of the grilled chicken breast lived up to its name; it was also surprisingly tasty, probably because of an herb-infused marinade that made it juicy as well as plump. The same technique was used for another big seller, the grilled salmon (market price, $15 when we dined), which was simple but fresh and thick. Both entrées were served with some standard but well-prepared sides of sautéed spinach, roasted potatoes and grilled zucchini.

The second time we visited La Vista, we decided to give it the ultimate litmus test, to see if it really compared to one of our driveway parties. We took a group of kids. Unfortunately the experience couldn't measure up to our neighborhood romps -- or even our first visit to La Vista. I should note that the problem didn't lie with the cafe. Our waiter couldn't have been more accommodating, sending in a rush cheese pizza order while the grown-ups were still looking over the menu. But sadly La Vista doesn't come equipped with a VCR or Nintendo so that we could send the pint-size diners away when they were done eating. We did, however, let them run amok along the massive strip-center sidewalk, a tactic that worked for a while.

Meanwhile, we dined on another comforting meal of mostly meat and potatoes; our friends sampled the Italian dishes. Especially tasty was the ravioli in tomato-cream sauce, which was spiked with just the right amount of vodka and sprinkled with fresh basil. This can be yours as an appetizer ($5) or entrée ($9). Less appealing was the capellini tossed with tomato, mushrooms, basil, garlic and grilled chicken in a white-wine sauce ($9). Its faults were mostly aesthetic: The mushrooms added too much moisture to an already soupy mix.

Once again, the hearty fare ruled. I sampled the house specialty, beef tenderloin ($15), which was grilled for a rich, smoky flavor and then, I would swear, braised to make it more tender. It arrived swimming in a port wine sauce studded with apricots and cherries. As I devoured it, I marveled at how well the combination worked -- and this from a girl who never wants so much as an apple chunk in her chicken salad. For our next visit, we're committed to trying everything chef-owner Greg Gordon claims as special on the menu.

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