Fina Estampa, Merced, Report
When I saw this new place on 16th near O, I was wondering if it could really be possible that Merced might have a Brazilian restaurant...but no, it is Mexican. Apparently it has only been open about a month.
I am always interested in new Mexican places, so we checked it out on a recent Friday night. Bottom line: if judged on food alone, this place could well go to the top of the list of Mexican places in Merced. If they iron out some service issues, it could be a real winner.
We went early, which turned out to be an extremely smart move. We were seated promptly, and our friendly server immediately brought us hot, fresh chips and a fresh salsa. The salsa also tasted fresh and house made (classic salsa fresca) but sadly had no heat at all. Next time I might ask if they have any other options. A glance around revealed that the pleasant if somewhat bare bones dining room was almost half filled, with tables speaking a mixture of English and Spanish.
The menu is interesting, with a few items one doesn't see often on Merced menus, including a whole pescado Veracruzano, and lots of more standards offerings. I noticed that they had albondigas, but it was warm out, so I didn't get sidetracked, though I also saw a delicious looking seafood stew going out to another table. Even the fajitas we saw going out looked great. Hubby and I decided to go with classics for our first visit: I ordered the special of the evening: a chile relleno plate; hubby ordered enchiladas verdes con pollo.
The chile relleno was made with a thin, not overly eggy batter, which is how I like it, and the fresh poblano chile was stuffed with cheese. It was covered with a mild, delicious tomato sauce. Rice and beans on the side were average, and my side of tortillas were fresh. It was basic (I'd like to see how they did with a more complex stuffing), but very well executed. Hubby's enchiladas were filled with a generous portion of well-seasoned chicken; the tomatillo sauce was as good as I've had in a restaurant in years, and best of all, cheese was applied with a judicious hand so the flavors of the chicken, tortilla and sauce dominated. I'd say that based on our experience that sauces are a strength at Fina Estampa.
As we ate, I noticed both that the place was filling up, and that our server, who had been very responsive and efficient thus far, was getting slammed. She was the only server, and clearly the crowds were more than one person could handle. Aggravatingly, the host, an older man who I suspect is the owner, did absolutely nothing to help her other than seat people and refill water glasses, literally! He didn't even bring menus to a table of six that he seated (they eventually walked out without anyone coming back to their table, and I can't say I blame them). He certainly never cleared tables; in fact, he sat the party of six in a back alcove that was poorly lit, rather than clearing a much better table in the front of the room (no wonder they left...) Eventually, the server got so slammed that our service suffered as well: it took at least twenty minutes to get our check when we were done.
We ended our meal by sharing a flan de queso, which had potential, but unfortunately was served too chilled. At some point, our server came by and told us that the cook had made a mistake on my order: the special was supposed to be two chile rellenos, not one, and she discounted our entire bill by ten percent in compensation. Since I had eaten way too much anyway, and the special was only around $8, I would have been happy with one chile, but it was a nice gesture.
Total for our meal with three Negro Modelos, including the discount and tax but before tip, was about $25.
Perhaps a server didn't show, and hopefully Fina Estampa will work out the service issues soon. In the meantime, hubby and I will definitely be back, and plan to try the whole pescado next time. Fina Estampa is open for both lunch and dinner, and while it isn't completely on its game yet, it definitely has lots of potential. I hope to hear more reports!
802 W 16th St
Merced, CA 95340
Update: I've been a few times since this report, and my most recent visit, a small office holiday lunch, held at the same time as several large group lunches, put the service to the test. They were well up to the challenge: service was accommodating, efficient and friendly.
This time, I tried the albondigas. Definitely among the better versions in Merced. They also now have cosido on the menu. Two co-workers tried the chile rellenos based on my recommendation, and raved; sauces are still the star here. The only miss among all of our choices was the guacamole: it was covered with shredded cheddar cheese and olives. (I am a puritan when it comes to guacamole). We scrapped off the toppings, but it still tasted as if it has mayo added.
The lunch menu is more limited than at dinner. I still haven't tried the pescado, mostly because my return visits have been at lunch when it isn't listed on the menu. Time to rectify that...