The central San Joaquin Valley town of Merced is know world-wide as the "Gateway to Yosemite," as it's the closest "full-service" town, (e.g., bus service, Amtrak, airport, etc.) to Yosemite, as its less than a two hour drive to the incomparable valley from anywhere in Merced. But known mostly only to locals, Merced also boasts one of the best Mexican restaurants that I've had the pleasure to dine at in the San Joaquin Valley, and that's the locally owned and operated, La Nita Cafe, on West 18th street.
I am a native of Merced, and I have been eating at La Nita Cafe for well over 40 years. The prices have changed, the restaurant's location has changed, but the friendly people, delicious food, efficient service and fun atmosphere hasn't changed over the years.
Photo: Left: La Nita Cafe, on W. 18th Street, in Merced. The restaurant has been in this location for 40+ years, after relocating from the former Yosemite Valley Railroad station, which was condemmed, and forced the restaurant to relocate to their current location.
Photo: After placing our drink orders, we're being served our chips and drinks. From left to right, my brother Michael, his wife Margie, Greg, my brother-in-law, my sister Bonnie, our waitress, and my brother Paul. My wife Sharlene is hidden in this photo, much to her delight. Shortly after this photo was taken, our charming server came back to take our orders. Chips, salsa and pickled veggies are "on-the-house," and all-you-can-eat, naturally, when you purchase a meal. On weekends, La Nita serves menudo, which is a plus.
Friday, June 1, 2006, my wife and I spent an enjoyable day visiting Yosemite Valley, and admiring the roaring waterfalls after an abundant winter of Sierra snow. Hiking around looking at waterfalls will build an appetite, so by the time we started the drive to Merced, we were anticipating a fine meal at La Nita Cafe. Not surprisingly, we had arranged to meet my brothers, sister and their spouses at La Nita for a fine family dinner.
When you walk into La Nita Cafe, you'll immediately notice several things: A festive, Mexican-style decor, a friendly greeter, and the savory, earthy aroma of fine Mexican food. I can't think of a smell that appeals more to my senses than the smell of a fine, Mexican restaurant... it makes my mouth water in anticipation of a delicious meal.
If you have a large party, it's a good idea to call for reservations, especially on weekends, as La Nita is one of Merced's most popular restaurants. We were a party of 7 and had not trouble being seated, which is rare for a early Friday evening in June.
Photo: La Nita Cafe features authentic Mexican decor, mixed morphed into contemporary San Joaquin Valley tastes. What does that mean? It looks good!
Photo: My sister Bonnie, who is a vegetarian, enjoys her cheese enchilada. La Nita Cafe has many vegetarian dishes on their extensive menu.
You're seated immediately by a friendly hostess, and before you know it, baskets of warm, freshly made tortilla chips are placed in front of you, along with house salsa and some of the most delicious pickled jalapeno peppers and carrot slices that I've ever eaten. A menu and a glass of ice water is placed before you, and with a smile, the hostess asks you what you want to drink. Una cerveza de Budweiser, por favor...
It would be an understatement to say that La Nita Cafe features an extensive menu, as their menu has everything and more in the line of Mexican food that a Mexican cuisine lover could want, and more. One item on their menu that always available that's near and dear to my heart is menudo, so you know they're an authentic Mexican restaurant if the offer menudo every day, at all hours. The menu choice is almost bewildering, but you can't miss, as everything on the menu is good and features an outstanding presentation.
Over the years, I've eaten almost everything on the menu, but I always seem to return to their #6 Combination dinner, which features a beef or chicken taco, enchilada, tamale, rice and beans. While your meal is being prepared, you can enjoy the chips, salsa, pickled peppers and carrots, sip your drink, enjoy pleasant conversation, and enjoy your attractive surroundings. When you're out of chips, salsa or vegetables, the waitress will automatically bring you another bowl, with a big smile on her face. The staff at La Nita's is very friendly, will make you feel at home, and seem to take genuine pleasure in making your dining experience as enjoyable as possible.
Photo: As per my normal routine, I ordered my favorite offering on the menu, the "Number 6 Combination Dinner." It's big, delicious and filling, so even if you're a lumberjack or a football linebacker, a #6 will fill you up. You get a taco, tamale, enchilada, along with rice and beans. Oh yeah! I've been enjoying this dinner since I was a kid in the early 1960's... I remember the price of this dinner was something like $1.95 back in 1965... not so today!
Photo: Sharlene enjoys her "Number Ten Combination Dinner" of enchilada, chilie relleno, rice and beans.
The food is, simply put, heavenly. Everything is made in their kitchen, fresh, from natural ingredients, and you won't be served anything that comes out of a bottle or a can. The waitress brings the food to you on a hot platter (she has to use oven gloves) and the food is hot, fresh and delicious. The main entrees are not particularly spicy, but they aren't bland... they're delicious. The rice is fresh, tender and flavorful, not greasy or oily like some rice I've eaten. The refried beans contain lard, which gives them superior taste. I realize the "Health Police" frown on the consumption of lard, but refried beans aren't refried beans without lard.
You will not go away hungry after enjoying a meal at La Nita Cafe, as the portions are generous. It was all I could do to consume their huge Number 6, but the food is so good that I can't bear to leave any on my plate.
For those so inclined, La Nita's also features a full-service bar, and they'll be happy to prepare you any cocktail that you desire. Naturally, their specialty is Margaritas, and they sell them by the glass and the pitcher. However due to the fact that I usually seem to be the driver, it has been many years since I've sampled one of their Margaritas.
Photo: Looking back toward La Nita's kitchen and their full-service bar. I can't resist taking a photo of a neon beer sign, as it gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. Note the server is receiving a dinner order from the window into the kitchen.
Photo: My brother Paul pays his tab to the cashier.
Since the early 1960's, La Nita Cafe has been an icon in Merced, representing delicious Mexican food, fun, family-friendly atmosphere, and outstanding value. La Nita is a pioneer in Merced Mexican cuisine, as it was one of the first restaurants to take Mexican cuisine from the peach orchards, taco trucks and small taquerias, and elevate it to one of the most popular cuisines in Merced. La Nita Cafe was a hit from the start and today remains one of the most popular restaurants in Merced.
Update: Unfortunately, in 2012, La Nita Cafe closed it's doors, and is no longer serving delicious Mexican food to Mercedians. La Nita Cafe, you'll be missed...
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