No Spice? Not Nice

Coral Gables has always been the place to go when you can't quite decide what it is you're craving. In the City Beautiful you will find French, Italian, Indian, Cuban, Spanish, Chinese, Thai, Continental - it's a veritable United Nations of dining. But until the past few months, there's been a conspicuous absence of choices for fans of diverse, authentic Mexican dishes. Somebody finally noticed.

Open since mid-December, Margarita's Mexican Cantina is one of the latest entries on the scene. It's located on Calle Ocho and - gracias a Dios - has its own parking lot. That unexpected convenience alone is worth drinking to, which is the first thing my dining companion and I did. Served in frosty mugs, our frozen margaritas were a bit too sweet, but the complimentary tortilla chips and salsa that we munched between sips made up for it. The chips were thin, warm, and crisp, and the salsa, while it could have been a bit chunkier, tasted homemade. A spicier version is yours for the asking, according to the menu.

Margarita's offers more than glorified taco-stand fare, though you won't gasp at the scope of its creativity. Three soups cream of black bean, tortilla, and lentil - are listed, but the menu is bereft of most main-course soups, such as menudo, pozole, and cocido de carne de res con platano. Selections tend toward dishes familiar to gringos (and even cubanos), with a smattering of more ambitious dishes as well, such as chicken mole, carne asada, and beef tamales.

Margarita's is calling itself a cantina, after all, and the menu plainly states that "our Mexican cuisine is subtly flavored and less spicy than standard pepper-dominated Mexican food," so the chef is straightforward in not attempting to appeal to those with flame-proof tongues. And while the unspoken motto seems to be, "If it ain't fried, it ain't Mexican,"

the restaurant uses vegetable oil rather than the lard customarily used in the old country.

Attempts at political correctness aside, Margarita's does a fairly expert job on its traditional fried dishes. The $7.45 sampler platter was proof of this (other starters range between $3.95 and $5.95). An eclectic mix of teasers, the assortment featured three meaty, fiery chicken wings, two potato skins, and a pair each of chicken nachos, quesadillas, and chimichangitas. Most of these were delicious, and among the more southerly tidbits, the beef nachos were outstanding. The ground beef had been enhanced with spices and a little ground pork, lending the mixture a snappy sausage flavor. The least successful of the lot were the chimichangitas, crisp, little burritos that are as common in Arizona as black beans are in Miami. The machaca filling consisted of ground white chicken-breast meat, but the absence of stewed tomatoes, chiles, shredded cheddar, and spices normally used in the preparation of this dish was obvious. Their greasy appearance did not add to their appeal. Salvaging the chimichangitas was a foursome of small, fluted, tortilla baskets, each filled with a different salsa: a fresh, oniony guacamole, sour cream sprinkled with black-olive bits, a cheddar-cheese dip, and a zesty ranchero sparked with cilantro.

Proper preparation of Mexican cuisine is almost as complicated as calculus. For example, the chile colorado, the salsa generally called for in recipes for the aforementioned chimichangitas, is itself made from at least a half-dozen ingredients, including dried red chiles, cilantro, whole cumin, oregano, garlic, and onion. Margarita's is extremely conservative in its use of such seasonings. I can understand a little jalapenophobia, but this joint seems to have banned the entire family of chiles, many of which are not at all hot.

This fear of chiles was most pronounced in the entree I ordered, chicken in mole sauce. I was privileged to have savored this specialty prepared by a Mexican friend of ours in Costa Rica. Her recipe had been passed on to her by her mother, who would spend long hours hand-grinding the necessary nuts, seeds, and spices for the sauce. I don't suppose any restaurant could ever duplicate the mole Marisela prepared for us, but Margarita's doesn't even come close.

Though it's listed on the menu under "south of the border specialties," Margarita's rendering was decidedly Spanish. A plump, tender chicken breast, perfectly baked, was served smothered in a dark brown sauce the texture of beef gravy and joltingly bitter. It tasted almost exclusively of cocoa, and while some might prefer this style, it is not Mexican. Next time I'll choose something simpler.

My dining companion, on the other hand, had no complaints about his "Mexicombo" entree. For those who have trouble deciding between enchiladas, tacos, tamales, burritos, and chiles rellenos, Margarita's offers a choice of any two for $4.95, any three for $5.95, or any four for $6.95. It's a great deal, and, as with the other entrees, each combo includes a generous portion of refried beans and rice. The night we visited, the restaurant was out of tamales, so my companion dove into a platter heaped with a chile relleno, a beef enchilada, a cheese enchilada, and a bean tostada. He gave each dish high marks, and left no trace of the rice and beans, which were fragrant with the scent of pork. Adding to his contentment was the restaurant's selection of five Mexican beers (there is also a full bar), and he gleefully did his part to deplete the supply of Tecate - figuring he could always switch to Dos Equis, Carta Blanca, Corona, or Bohemia.

Different desserts are offered daily, and on the night we visited, I passed up flan and strawberry mousse cake in favor of the Oreo cookie cheesecake, which proved to be an excellent choice. The flavors of the bittersweet chocolate and the cheese complemented each other perfectly, and the crumbled-cookie crust was soft rather than crunchy, a texture that suited the consistency of the dessert. My dining companion drank his after-dinner sweet in the form of one of Margarita's specialty coffees. Called "Mexican Coffee," his $2.95 java was spiked with Kahlua, brandy, and whipped cream, and he found it good to the last bone-warming drop.

If it's a taste of Mexicana you're craving, Margarita's is well worth a try. The tile-and-brick, mission-style setting and lighted cactus garden create an attractive, relaxing ambiance, and with upbeat Mexican tunes swirling about the room, the restaurant's slogan - "Mucho Fun...Poco Dinero" - is right on the mark.

MARGARITA'S MEXICAN CANTINA 3850 SW 8th St, Coral Gables; 447-0730. Hours: Monday - Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.

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