A vegetarian restaurant within a restaurant

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In most regards, La Botana is the typical Mexican restaurant you’ll find around the Triad — booths, kitschy signs that say things like, “If you’re drinking to forget, pay in advance,” a TV playing Univision and bright colors everywhere. It’s the kind of place where the clientele is a mix of Latino and otherwise, where you pay at the register and can count on a bounty of free chips while you’re waiting.

But for the faithful, just hearing the Winston-Salem restaurant’s name will bring electricity into their eyes. The food is tasty, yes, but there are copious first-rate Mexican options in this area. What makes La Botana unique, and what makes its customers so loyal, is the expansive and creative vegetarian menu.

It’s not uncommon to find vegetarian food at a Mexican restaurant, of course, whether it’s the veggie quesadilla at El Azteca or the nopalitos burrito at Villa del Mar. But La Botana provides an entirely separate, two-sided vegetarian menu, and if you don’t know to ask for it, you won’t be handed one when you sit down. Instead, it looks like on first blush that there’s nothing meatless offered there.

Located in a shopping center in southwest Winston-Salem on Hanes Mall Boulevard, La Botana stands next to the forgettable Tanoshii restaurant, Om Indian Groceries, Spices & More and an assortment of other businesses. It’s tucked in the back corner, unassuming and average sized, just waiting to blow the minds of vegetarians who are used to asking for substitutions or being stuck with only a couple options.

Instead, La Botana’s vegetarian menu brags 20 distinct items, most of which you won’t see anywhere else. At least not around here.

You can order portabella or nopalitos (cactus) sopes, a broccoli jicama bowl, loaded tostadas, a veggie-filled burrito or one of five chimi selections. The black bean chimi is the cheapest vegetarian option at $9, while almost half hit the $14 mark, which means this isn’t exactly cheap eats. But it’s worth it, especially if you’re a vegetarian who’s used to feeling like an afterthought at restaurants.

Show up for dinner on Mondays or Tuesdays when all of the items are $11 if you dine in. Try the poblano corn stinky tacos, which come stuffed with zucchini, squash, potatoes, onions, corn, tomatoes and poblano topped with stinky cincho cheese, radish and avocado.

The small servings of white rice and pintos that come on the side aren’t that great, but the house hot sauce with them doesn’t play around. It’s potent enough that you should be conservative when first applying it, but it does enhance the flavor of the massive tacos.

“Stinky” certainly is an accurate descriptor of the cheese — it may not be the first thing you smell when dishes like this one or the stinky loaded tostadas arrive, but it’s hard to miss. But the cheese takes these vegetable-laden tacos to the next level, and they wouldn’t be nearly as good without it.

Other dishes make use of Swiss chard, kale or burnt queso fresco, but no matter the dish, each does more than just provide a typical menu item with the meat removed. The sweet chile potatoes, for example, come with zucchini, asparagus, broccoli, mixed peppers, red onions, pineapple, potatoes, cherry tomatoes and spicy arbol chiles. And the trio Huasteco quesadillas include a squash blossom, a Huitlacoche and a spicy nopalitos and mushroom corn quesadilla with avocado and cincho cheese.

Huitlacoche is a Mexican delicacy, a fungus that grows on corn and is variously called “Mexican truffle” or — less appetizingly — “corn smut.” Maybe you’re not ready for that, or the Huitlacoche and blossom sopes, but you can’t deny that it helps differentiate this vegetarian menu from somewhat pithy options elsewhere.

When was the last time that a vegetarian menu had this much variety and adventure? Probably when you were traveling.

Experience La Botana’s extensive vegetarian menu (dinner only) Monday-Saturday at 1547 Hanes Mall Blvd. (W-S) or at labotana-ws.com