The Southwest Will Rise Again

When a region such as the Southwest achieves national attention, a broad, enduring public interest often results. International galleries import achievements of local artists. Entrepreneurs bottle indigenous sauces and spices, supplying the gourmet sections of upscale department stores. Most important, restaurants serving regional cuisine open all over the country. The fascination, though, eventually loses its intensity. And no matter how good the chilies and nachos are, we eventually get sick of them.

Recently, as all trends must, the Southwest boomlet has declined in popularity, but its impact is still felt. The coyote-and-cacti motif is nearly outmoded, but margaritas and guacamole have become menu staples rather than novelties. Now only a few Miami restaurants serve predominantly Southwestern-style cuisine. Three immediately come to mind: the Lazy Lizard and the Chili Pepper, both on South Beach, and Cilantro, located in Coral Gables. Although the restaurant is opening after the fad has begun to wane, Bayside's new Crocodile Cantina makes a unique addition to downtown's dining scene. It also brings a Florida twist to this spicy food.

Internationally oriented, Bayside boasts various Latin and American cuisines, but according to restaurant manager Mike Porn, nothing from the arid Arizona-New Mexico belt. The owners, who also run Snapper's in the same mall, researched Southwestern restaurants across the country, then opened Crocodile Cantina in the last week of July.

Despite a clear effort to appeal to tourists, the decor is neither obnoxious nor overwhelming. Wooden chairs and tables are painted in muted solids A orange, purple and green A and arranged with a mix-and-match feel. The restaurant's bottom level is open-air and includes a section overlooking the water. The place does have some gimmicky elements, including a mariachi trio that plays Friday and Sunday, and a menu imprinted with chili peppers and mariachi hats. And that menu is not always accurate: any menu item labeled "crocodile" is always another meat, say, alligator, but never, in fact, the real croc. Overall, however, the restaurant exhibits restraint, and by doing so, attracts a work-force lunch crowd as well as foot traffic fresh from the cruise ships.

This moderation extends to the menu's prices, another surprise in the Bayside mall. If you're health-conscious, however, you might not find the menu so admirable: out of ten appetizers, for instance, six are deep-fried and three others are loaded with cheese. We ordered the combination platter, an assortment of six of the fried appetizers. We found that a dish for two adequately served our table of four.

At first, we thought the house fritters -- fried balls of corn batter accented with yellow kernels and jalapenos -- also had cheese in the middle. Soon we realized the gooey center was actually raw batter. Inexperienced fry cook, perhaps? Though undercooking prohibited us from discovering the true texture and flavor of the fritter, it wasn't an unpleasant taste for those of us who grew up noshing on cookie dough. This time, though, I didn't get a stomachache.

Another item prompted me to recall my childhood liking for latkes, Jewish fried potato pancakes. An entree dubbed "Irving's Southwestern potato cakes" was accompanied by sour cream -- and a spicy, chunky salsa, which is where the resemblance to latkes ended. We enjoyed these patties, featuring a deep, crisp skin, with their minced potato filling highlighted by jalape*o, the pepper of the night. But I'd have preferred that the cakes be pan-fried in butter rather than immersed in hot oil like french fries.

In a nod to Latin American and Caribbean clientele, tostones, squashed round circles of green bananas, were served everywhere. They needed salt; otherwise, these fried green plantains were an adequate, if bland, starter. Blandness also afflicted the ancho chile polenta -- coarse corn meal sauteed with mild chilies -- that had been formed into a loaf, then sliced, rolled in rice crumbs and, of course, deep-fried. But the texture was wonderful -- the crumbly polenta trembling on the fork almost like cornbread.

"Crocodile wings," the most highly spiced starter, were actually juicy chicken wings, coated with minced garlic, cilantro, and hot sauce. Certainly crocodile wings are a fanciful misnomer for these tasty, Buffalo-inspired treats; it's a phrase that brings to mind Jurassic Park visions of vicious, unfamiliar species.

The "sidewinder" skins -- named after the rattlesnake -- completed the appetizer package, but there was nothing serpentine about them. Loaded with chili and avocado sauce, these enormous potato skins were also laden with cheddar and jack cheese and topped with -- you guessed it -- jalapenos. Carnivores will delight in the tender beef and chorizo chili; a vegetarian black bean version is available for herbivores.

A healthier alternative to the combination appetizer, the Southern crab corn chowder, was more like a stew. Unlike the soup we had expected, the fish broth in which it was cooked hardly covered this thick delicious mix of corn, fresh Anaheim chili, and crab claw meat. Though not everyone cares for it, I love my soup this way; it's so chunky you could eat it with a fork.

For a Florida flair, I tried the crocodile fajitas. Once again, "crocodile" meant something else -- in this case, sauteed strips of Everglades alligator. I had expected the pieces of gator to be as tough as a purse, but I was pleasantly surprised. White like pork, the two-inch-long shreds of meat were tender and had a light, pleasant flavor, assisted by the platter of grilled red and green peppers, and onions. Wrapped in flour tortillas with salsa, guacamole, and other Tex-Mex staples, the alligator was easy eating (unfortunately, the refried black beans listed on the menu had been forgotten). With the alligator meal before me, and the bay rising and falling like breath just a few yards away, for a minute I experienced the eerie peace of an Everglades camp.

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