Located all the way out in Outer Richmond, far away from the Mission which is typically known for their Mexican cuisine, is a rather deceivingly large restaurant called Tia Margarita.
I have been here many times. I have organized HH Club happy hours here, and I have had dinners here. I have driven by at 3 PM and nearly cried when I realized they weren’t open, and all I craved was one of their Pina Coladas.
Let me say off the bat that Tia Margarita is a truly special restaurant with great food; this is particularly meaningful coming from me because I am not a huge fan of Mexican food in the U.S. in general.
But I am having to hold back every urge to blast this restaurant right now for what is most frustrating to me about restaurants: why offer great food if you’re going to ruin it with horrid service? Customers can come because of great food, but they return because of awesome service — period!
Every single person I had encountered at Tia Margarita, from my very first visit there almost a year ago, had been nothing short of fantastic. Sure, most of the time, I sat at the bar and downed countless Pina Coladas with friends, and ordered food from the bartenders. My favorite bartender, Francisco, starting with his jolly greeting when I first dropped in to the warm welcome he offers to this day (not to mention his amazing Pina Colada), has singlehandedly made my evenings here fun and memorable.
Then on one Sunday a few months ago, I brought a group of 13 people here to begin with a happy hour and lead into a Mexican feast for dinner, as I knew all of them would truly enjoy this place. That was when I first ran into what I will call “the server situation” at Tia Margarita. Now, keep in mind that I don’t enjoy being bitchy, but after this past visit last week, and my second encounter with this same server — I am, without a doubt, never sitting at a table again until this server is guaranteed not to be my server for the evening.
In all of my visits, I have NEVER had an issue getting a bowl of fresh jalapenos with my food order. Then one day, I encounter a server with an Irish (or is it British?) accent who brings me pickled jalapenos — and happily, I explained I wanted fresh jalapenos, apologizing that I had not been clear. She informs me then that they — a Mexican restaurant — have no jalapeno peppers and all they have are pickled jalapenos. I explain I have ordered extra jalapenos each time I have visited; she insists that’s not possible because they — I remind you, a Mexican restuarant — do not have jalapenos.
“Nobody orders jalapenos here,” she says.
I asked if they had serranos, and she said the same thing, “No, nobody ever orders that.”
But like I said, this was a big group event, and not wanting to ruin the mood, I took a good look at her face, and decided to drop it. “Okay, nobody orders jalapenos here,” I mumbled. We ordered about 40 Pina Coladas, and had our meal, sans fresh jalapenos.
Fast forward to last week, and due to needing to discuss some work, three of us sat down at a table instead of our usual spot at the bar. (First mistake.) As soon as this server came to our table, I realized that (1) she still had a job there, and (2) she would be our server yet again. But believing in second chances, the evening started off with her taking our drink order and I was nothing but cordial about it, choosing to forget the past as it seemed ridiculous to hold a grudge over jalapeno peppers, even if that is the highlight of any Mexican meal for me.
We ordered three Pina Coladas, to start. She took the order and left.
She immediately returned and informed us that they were out of Pina Coladas.
“Out of Pina Coladas?” I asked, “How do you run out of Pina Coladas?”
“We ran out of whatever we needed to make Pina Coladas,” she replies, matter-of-factly, and I do think it was this moment that she recognized me as the “jalapeno girl” from the past visit. I continue looking at her in disbelief when she adds, much to my horror, “Nobody ever orders that here.”
“Help me, Jesus — I’m about to sin,” I thought to myself.
I took a deep breath and decided to let this, too, subside. We ordered two beers and a margarita instead, none of which held a candle to our beloved Pina Colada, and placed our food order.
I could foresee where this was going, but half because I really do need it with my meal, and half because I was curious what her reply would be this time, I asked for the requisite bowl of jalapenos — rather afraid for her if she failed this time. She took the order without a problem, though. (Maybe she didn’t recognize me afterall.)
Then she came back with the pickled jalapenos and I knew we’d be replaying the entire situation again. I asked for fresh jalapenos, and she went back to the kitchen, and returned with what I presume is her colleague or manager in tow, presumably to handle the “irate customer” (me!), explaining to me how they do not have fresh jalapenos.
I said that’s fine, gave a great sigh, and pondered how to review this restaurant. If at all possible, I try to base my reviews on multiple visits when I am unsure, but two times encountering the same haughtiness from the same server, I found myself peering down at my food wondering what to write.
In a few minutes, she returned and said, “I’d like you to know that this is not my fault and I can’t help what the kitchen does or doesn’t have. We use all the jalapenos we have for the pickled jalapenos and don’t have any more for fresh jalapenos. We do have habaneros; would you like that instead?” I accepted and gnawed on habaneros throughout the dinner to just shut myself up for the evening.
Now for those in the know, habaneros offer only heat and virtually no taste. My preference would be serranos or jalapenos, and I was apparently in the first Mexican joint EVER where neither was available though it was in the guacamole, in the salsa, and in the pickled jalapenos.
Now, my mood was soured — but the food arrived, so let’s get to the meat of this review, so to speak.
My favorite thing on the menu, next to the outstanding (though rather overpriced) guacamole that Tia Margarita has, is the Enchiladas Rancheras consisting of two enchiladas with your choice of chicken or beef, with a side salad that is plain but so fresh, your choice of refried or black beans and rice. There is something so comforting about this enormous plate served up with hot and cold items mixed together! On this last visit, my enchilada was not as hot as it had been on previous visits, and the egg was a tad overcooked, but that could be me just being pissy because I’m stuck on the lack of fresh jalapenos to accompany this awesome feast.
My friend, MD, ordered the small combination plate, including a chicken taco and a flauta. This dish, like mine, was also freshly prepared, and served up with all the same sides. He doesn’t eat a lot usually, but he devoured everything on his plate.
Mr. K wasn’t hungry this evening and ordered a single taco. At Tia Margarita, it comes nicely presented with the rice, salad and beans, like the other larger entrees, and it perfect for the lighter eater. Of course, $9.75 is also not cheap for what’s called “One Beef Taco”.
We were also served up warm flour tortillas, which was perfect with a little bit of guacamole, salsa, rice, and salad rolled into it.
We had our meal without my favorite Pina Colada. After all that, we asked Francisco later if he couldn’t make a Pina Colada, and what do you know — he could. I told him that we had been told that the bar ran out of “whatever is needed to make Pina Coladas” — and he didn’t know what we were talking about. Just to be certain, I asked if he could have given me fresh jalapenos, and, as has always been the case, he gave me a hearty, “OF COURSE!”
Moving forward, I won’t arrange group dinners here in order to avoid sitting at a table. From here on, I will be at the bar with 2-3 others, relying solely on Francisco and the other bar staff to keep my Tia Margarita experience fabulous. The inconsistency of service at this restaurant tempts me to rate it lower, as it wasn’t just our Irish server but another manager or someone who accompanied her to inform our table (with the irate diner — me) that they were out of Pina Coladas and did not have jalapeno peppers.
A Mexican restaurant — with no jalapenos! Imagine that!
Tia Margarita is located at 300 19th Ave at the corner of Clement. Their business hours are Tuesday to Sundays, open for dinner only — and they are closed on Mondays. Parking in this neighborhood can often be really difficult so allow for plenty of time if you’re meeting with friends. Besides, if you’re early — you can sit at the bar and order a Pina Colada, the best I have found in San Francisco thus far! If you must sit at a table — do so, but if you get this particular server — kindly request a server change; trust me on this!
Service: 5/10 (averaging out excellent to horrible)
Addictive Factor: 8.4/10
Overall Rating: 7.5/10
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.