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La Reyna Monarca

Bright, fresh and authentic Michoacan cooking

So much sauce and melted cheese sullies the experience for me at many of the region’s Mexican eateries

No matter the genre of cuisine, I’m drawn to fresh flavors, bright colors and a steady hand with presentation. Or give me a singularly savory specialty on the order of pozole or menudo, the latter a tough sell at eateries who cater to the most general notions of Latin fare.

La Reyna Monarca isn’t just another Mexican restaurant. Its menu represents authentic Michoacan cooking and other aspects of culture, from its fresh-fruit bar to its small, adjacent grocery. The monarch butterfly mascot is the most recent in a string of Mexican establishments to alight where Medford’s Court Street merges with Central Avenue, but it’s arguably the most distinguished yet.

Vibrant photos of fruit parfaits — cups brimming with chili-seasoned melon and mango garnished with lime — and other popular street-food snacks caught my eye while browsing La Reyna Monarca’s Facebook page. The site also touts goblets swimming in shrimp, roast pork spilling from fat tortas and cauldrons crowded with honeycombed tripe.

The menudo came with warm corn tortillas and an array of garnishes — lime, jalapeno slices, diced onion and a few pinches of Mexican oregano.

Often the easiest point of entry, tacos are sold singly for $2.50 at La Reyna Monarca. Tripe and tongue are $2.75 apiece. Tamales, either chicken, pork, or chilies and cheese, are $3.

Adding meat — chicken, beef, pork or ham — doesn’t increase the $7.75 cost of a basic quesadilla. Similarly, the iconic Mexican sandwich known as a torta is priced at $8 regardless of filling. Beef, chicken or shrimp fajitas ($13-$14.50) and a taco salad ($8.50) echo the widespread American preference for these items.

The selection of entrees does include chiles rellenos and Michoacan-style enchiladas, but most options are less familiar to mainstream eaters in Southern Oregon. Sopes ($3.75) are masa cakes thicker than tortillas with rimmed borders to hold fillings — chicken, beef or beans and cheese. A pambazos ($9) is a white-bread sandwich dipped in red-chile sauce. The majority of entrees, however, are soups and stews — hominy, meatball, beef soup, goat stew and the menudo that had beckoned me to La Reyna Monarca.

I ordered a small bowl, which I had good reason to believe would constitute a fairly large portion. And because I knew the tripe stew would be spicy and rich, with a funky undertone, I wanted a cleaner, more straightforward dish for contrast.

Seafood is the largest menu section, comprising various preparations of shrimp, tostadas topped with ceviche, octopus and shrimp ($4.50-$5), seafood chiles rellenos ($12.50), a house-specialty seafood platter ($16) and the Mexican-style seafood cocktail known as “campechana” ($12.50). The bounty of Michoacan’s Pacific coast translates onto La Reyna Monarca’s menu.

While supremely fresh seafood always is a tall order in the landlocked Rogue Valley, the tostada still represents an excellent value. I’d definitely spring next time for the campechana.

My 3- and 6-year-old sons seemed game for a pork quesadilla and torta, respectively. We tacked on a house-made horchata and tamarind-flavored agua fresca while accepting the offer of complimentary chips and salsa.

Claiming our beverages at the front counter, we chose a sun-warmed, comfortable booth under the restaurant’s television. Fortunately, the kids’ plates came out first, and, appetites piqued from swimming lessons, they dove in with hardly a thought for their typical expectations of a sandwich and quesadilla. They even gamely sampled some salsa with their chips, before I pointed out that the refried beans make a great dip.

The menudo came with warm corn tortillas and an array of garnishes — lime, jalapeno slices, diced onion and a few pinches of Mexican oregano. My ceviche tostada was piled high with, if not precisely, then nicely diced shrimp, octopus and avocado mingled with pico de gallo. While supremely fresh seafood always is a tall order in the landlocked Rogue Valley, the tostada still represents an excellent value. I’d definitely spring next time for the campechana.

The menudo met my expectations of rubbery, gelatinous goodness with just the right level of spicy burn, although slightly stronger-tasting than I anticipated. For anyone who eats menudo infrequently, the first sip is something of shock, which probably speaks to its stereotype as a hangover cure. But as the palate adjusts, it’s a dish to linger over, adding a squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of onions to each chunk of flesh, a pinch of herbs to offset the bracing broth.

With two kids in tow, I didn’t have time to linger and packed up my menudo to take home. We detoured to the fresh-fruit bar and ice-cream freezer, where I told the boys we’d come back another day for fruit topped with raisins and coconut, maybe cookie crumbs and Gummi worms.

Quick, casual service is one of La Reyna Monarca’s strongest suits, but the restaurant also is a clean, bright, pleasant spot to enjoy authentic recipes at fair prices and snacks transported straight from streets south of the border.

La Reyna Monarca is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and from noon to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Call 541-500-8929.

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