I had heard fairy tales about La Perla ever since I moved to Salem. I love Mexican food – I even had Taco Bell at one in the morning yesterday – so I was excited to hear what all the fuss was about. The parking was sparse – but what can you expect from a restaurant situated in downtown Salem?
The only evidence of there even being a restaurant in the brick behemoth that is the Reed Opera House is a small sign near the entrance.
Being situated on the second floor of a mall-esque area, there are a few flights of stairs to climb and many twists and turns to navigate in order to reach La Perla – but even if you are directionally challenged like myself, it is well worth it.
We seated ourselves at a far-away table that appeared to be one reserved for large parties. The whole restaurant wraps around the inside of the Reed Opera House on a refurbished catwalk that gives it a feeling of overlooking the rest of the building.
Aside from the entirely Latin American staff and clearly Mexican menu options (and a few randomly placed sombreros), the restaurant could have served any type of food. There was hardly any Mexican décor – although there were Superman and Spider-Man action figures gracing the steam pipes above the cash register.
We were helped only minutes after we arrived by a sprightly Latin American woman, Lupita, who made it feel like we were the only customers in the restaurant (which, actually, wasn’t far from the truth). Her smile never faded, even after our eleventh party member was situated at the table. The other patrons, about three other parties, seemed to be middle-class families out for an affordable but high-quality dinner.
The one-page double-sided menu has the standard Mexican menu with tacos, burritos, combo platters, horchata, taco salads, and many other options.
Everything on the menu is extremely affordable, with the most expensive option being any of a list of five platters, each priced at $7.99. They serve their “super nachos” – which is essentially a plate of nachos the size of Rhode Island – for a mere $4.99, and a child-sized burrito (“The La Perla Burrito”) containing carne asada, French fries, refried beans, cheese, pico de gallo, and guacamole for $4.99 as well.
I indulged on an infant-sized La Perla burrito and horchata, which is more than filling, for a grand total of $6.48 – about two-thirds of the price of a meal at Aramark. We were allowed heavy customization of our decisions – one person opted for no meat, but “extra everything else,” and almost everyone else altered their meal to fit their own unique taste.
All eleven of our orders arrived about five minutes after ordering, which surprised us all. After we balked at each other’s giant meals, I remember myself saying “I don’t know how to approach this!” when handed my enormous burrito.
After rotating it in my hands a few times, trying to bite in, retreating, and saying a few “Hail Mary’s” I went for it. What assaulted my taste buds was a combination of French fries, steak bits, and refried beans – arguably the most Mexican-American combination of tastes.
If there ever was a flawless burrito, this was it. It smelled heavenly, was firm and fully stuffed, and it warmed my cold hands up from walking to the restaurant. My only complaint is that I couldn’t fit my tiny mouth around it. At first I was miffed that my burrito didn’t come with any sides of beans or rice, but after I finished (barely), I was glad that it didn’t.
We waited and debated among the table whether we were to wait for our waitress to bring us our bill or to pay up front. After about ten minutes of waiting, we decided to head up to the front of the restaurant, which apparently is what we were expected to do all along. We claimed our bills as Lupita rang us up on a cash register that looked to be older than she was. Some of our group got excited that they had an ice cream freezer, but all that was in it was one scoop – if that – of ancient vanilla ice cream.
A cooler behind Lupita displayed a collection of Jarritos for sale – a Mexican brand bottled soft drink. The rest of the night was a food-coma induced blur.
La Perla has quickly come alongside some of my favorite cheap Mexican restaurants, from Taco Bell to Aiberto’s. I will be making many visits in the near future. As a poor college student, I appreciate the quality food for a great price. ¡La Perla es la bomba!