In South Phoenix, the shopping center known as South Plaza has stood for decades at Southern and Central avenues as a legacy to late 20th Century design and land use. It’s an L-shaped complex with an iconic sign visible from Central Avenue. In addition to its retail tenants, South Plaza has also been a venue for car shows that celebrate cruising culture. With that heritage, recent proposals for redevelopment have drawn controversy. One current South Plaza tenant, La Olmeca, is decidedly less contentious with its menu of Mexican food.
The restaurant draws its name from the Olmecs, one of the earliest Mesoamerican societies and the source of a legacy that continues to resonate in contemporary Mexico. At La Olmeca, that influence is seen mainly in the decor, which includes representations of the colossal heads that predominated in ancient Olmec art. The restaurant is located in the plaza’s southern strip, across the street from the light rail station currently under construction at Southern/Central. Bike racks are found outside the 99 Cents Only store that anchors the shopping center.
La Olmeca is a place where customers order from overhead menus at the counter with new menu additions on hand-written signs on stands. After selecting their food, customers take their seats at u-shaped banquettes that dominate the dining room. Most tables are situated near windows facing the South Plaza parking lot, and the few that are not enjoy a view of artwork on the walls. An elaborately decorated mock-up of a separate building within a building with a thatched roof is actually an office used by the family that owns and operates the restaurant.
One of the best places to start an exploration of La Olmeca’s extensive overhead menu is with chicken served in mole poblano. This combo meal comes with tender pieces of poultry in a mild but flavorful dark sauce sauce with sesame seeds sprinkled on top and corn or flour tortillas on the side. Like all the combination plates on the menu, it is augmented with creamy refried beans and fluffy rice. Upon request, staff can also provide two salsas in squeeze bottles to accentuate the food. Both are red sauces, with one being considerably more spicy than the other.
A plate of red or green chili containing a choice of chicken or beef is another effective introduction to the kitchen’s output here. As with the mole, the sauce is not overwhelming but reveals nuance as it is consumed. Enchiladas can be topped with a tangy tomatillo salsa, a red sauce, mole, or suiza style. The last option is a blend of tomatillo and cream to produce a smoother topping. Tender dark meat tinga is a strong choice for the pair of rolled corn tortillas. A small salad tops the entire assemblage, adding a bit of color and variety to the presentation.
La Olmeca offers tacos individually or as a pair in a combination plate with rice and beans. The choice of meats includes carne asada, al pastor pork, carnitas, and chicken, and the format is simple: two layers of corn tortillas topped with the chosen protein, diced white onions, and minced cilantro. The same options present themselves inside a telera roll as part of a torta, a Mexican sandwich in which the meat is augmented with iceberg lettuce, jalapeños, onions, tomato, and avocado. These are sold a la carte, with a side for fries a worthy upgrade.
If torn between two of La Olmeca’s meats, a parrillada is a suitable solution, and this is one of the few places that serves a “parrillada personal,” a plate sized for one person. Parrilladas are typically meant to be shared, and the individual version forgoes the tabletop burner typically used to keep ingredients warm. Nevertheless, it’s a good distillation of the essence of a parrillada for a solo diner or a group where not everyone can agree on what to order. With the included cabbage, cilantro, onions, and tortillas, the platter essentially becomes a DIY taco kit.
La Olmeca has a distinct section of its menu devoted to seafood with fish and shrimp tacos, as well as combination platters based on shrimp or fish filets. Camarones rancheros features big shrimp with equally big slivers of jalapeños in a zesty red sauce. Fish is available fried or served in a simple garlic sauce or seared in a la plancha preparation. There’s a generously sized shrimp cocktail on the menu, and ceviche is available atop two diameters of tostadas. Seafood is also served in big bowls of soup full of shrimp, fish, or the bounty of caldo siete mares.
Soups and stews continue with additional meat sections. Cocido de res is a robust beef soup with cabbage, corn, carrots, and two types of squash in the broth. Rice and tortillas are served on the side to provide opportunities to absorb the liquid. La Olmeca also serves both menudo and pozole every day, not just on weekends like many other places. The restaurant’s version of the latter is a red version accessorized with cabbage, onions, limes, and radishes, along with a choice of tortillas, chips, or bread, and shakers full of dried oregano and pepper for seasoning.
La Olmeca’s website advertises a dessert section, and there’s a secondary counter that looks suitable for raspados and other frozen treats; however, it’s mostly inactive at this time. There are, however, some containers of flan in a refrigerated case behind the counter. In terms of drinks, the restaurant serves frescas like horchata and jamaica, as well as bottled beer. With so much construction nearby, both actual and proposed, it’s unclear what the ultimate fate of South Plaza will be, but La Olmeca should be part of whatever comes next at Southern and Central.
6066 S. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85042