Viva Zapata's

Zapata's Place slugs the front of its menu with this slogan: "The First Authentic Mexican Gourmet Food in Florida." That's a pretty bold claim for this North Miami newcomer to make. Surely somewhere in Florida there's an honest-to-goodness gourmet Mexican eatery that has been in business for more than six months. The owners of Las Puertas in Coral Gables, for instance, might take issue with the assertion.

Which is not to say that Zapata's owner Miguel Chibras, a Mexico City native, has erred completely in his evaluation. The restaurant is Mexican. And chef Gerardo Ponce, who has manned the stoves at various Miami Mexican restaurants (including Las Puertas) since 1979, is ambitious, if not always entirely successful.

Ambition meshes nicely with a touch of elegance in this handsome 75-seat restaurant, the former site of the North Dade branch of Darbar, which cleared out of the space last summer and is now back to a single (Coral Gables) location. The walls are decorated with Mexican paintings, the tables dressed with maroon linens (inherited from Darbar) and heavy silver chargers that come in handy to catch stray drips of chunky tomato salsa and pinto bean dip that slide off the freshly fried tortilla chips served gratis before the meal. A handy assortment of Mexican beers -- Bohemia, Carta Blanca, Simpatico, Tecate, and Chihuahua -- complements these munchies.

The beans, served warm and spiced with jalapenos, cilantro, garlic, vinegar, and melted cheddar cheese, put us in the mood for a cup of fish soup, a special offered on the night we visited. The soup was well stocked, with an abundance of onions, carrots, celery, and potatoes, but it was as briny as Biscayne Bay. Chunks of snapper were welcomingly mild but could not entirely sweeten the salt. For the summer-sensitive, a serving of refreshing (if slightly celery-heavy) gazpacho is an option. Even better, though, is the house salad, made with spinach and tossed with crumbled bacon and pine nuts. A Mexified version of Thousand Island dressing -- ketchup and mayonnaise spiked with garlic and cilantro -- coated the gently curled leaves.

The season is just right for avocados, a fruit that was showcased to great advantage in a creamy guacamole, embroidered with cilantro and tomato, that adorned an order of mini-quesadillas. Each of the three crunchy corn triangles, more maxi than mini, boasted a different filling: cheese, cheese and chopped mushroom, and cheese and ground beef. An intense pureed tomato sauce was drizzled over the pressed tortilla sandwiches, adding spark but not sog to a finely rendered dish.

Cazuelitas fondue was misleading but tasty: Though warm and melty, the "fondue" comprised ropes of cheese with a mozzarellalike consistency, best enjoyed rolled in the flour tortillas perched alongside. Made with Chihuahua cheese (what Chibras calls the "American cheese of Mexico"), the appetizer was divided between two bowls, one topped with mushrooms, the other with bits of pungent chorizo.

Soft flour tortillas provided the starchy bases for generous beef tacos. Three overstuffed tubes contained cubes of steak that had been marinated and grilled. A trifle dry, the beef was tasty nonetheless, and an oniony pico de gallo added some moisture. More guacamole and bland refried beans completed this main course.

Another meaty entree, carne a la tampique*a, proved far superior. -- flank steak had been butterflied, then rolled around a filling of sauteed peppers, tomatoes, onions, and ham. The whole delicious concoction, which had been wrapped in bacon to keep it juicy while it grilled, was doused with a sauce made of the same vegetables as the stuffing. Though salty by virtue of its ingredients, this dish wasn't inordinately so. Three different rices -- colored with herbs and spices to resemble the Mexican flag -- guacamole, and refried beans rimmed the rolled beef.

Grilled fillet of red snapper, an Ixtapan dish, was a hefty specimen, thick and flaky. Unfortunately, a bath of lime juice and herbs didn't do much to tenderize it; the fish was as chewy as oft-maligned mutton snapper. The ribbons of rice (as above) were largely flavorless despite their optimistic hues, but the wonderful avocado relish garnishing the fish did some salvage work.

One of owner Chibras's goals is to dish up fare that's more creative than run-of-the mill Mexican offerings. To that end, he has introduced nightly specials of the ilk Laura Esquivel describes with such passion in Like Water for Chocolate. We tried a quail dish that highlighted rose petals and cranberries, combining them in a brilliant and tangy sauce. Too bad the pallid pair of quail weren't as expertly done. The tiny birds were stretched out on a bed of shredded, flash-fried leeks, looking like frogs on an unruly bale of hay. Despite having been grilled, the skins were soft and unappetizing, the flesh stringy and tough. A molded scoop of mashed potatoes was equally lifeless.

The list of sweets -- flan and arroz con leche -- was as limited as one might expect from a Mexican restaurant. Sometimes you just aren't in the mood for flan. But the cafes mexicanos we ordered were dessert enough, foamy and sweet. Tilting back one last chilled Bohemia would have made a pleasant cap to this satisfying meal, as well, and it would have been an opportunity to toast another of Zapata's slogans, this one printed on the back of the menu: "There are no strangers here, only friends that haven't met."

Side Dish
So Gerardo Cea, proprietor of Cafe Prima Pasta, calls me up a few months ago. So I know you got a thing for Oggi, he says, and I'm not knockin' it, but my place is pretty good, too. So I say absolutely, love your stuff, but you've got to make some news for me to write about. So he goes out and gets himself another restaurant, buys out the owners of North Miami's Caffe Buonanotte. So Cea says he's naming it Cafe Primola, which is really a type of Italian flour but is also kind of a cutesy take on Cafe Prima Pasta, since it's gonna look a lot like his Miami Beach place (414 71st St.; 867-0106) anyway: black-and-white photos and pen-and-ink drawings hanging on dark green walls. So the only thing that'll be different is the brick oven display area in the front and a part of the kitchen where customers can watch their appetizers being put together. So now we can Cea no evil, eat-a no evil at two locations. The new phone number is 899-1081. Cea at 13200 Biscayne Blvd.

So sorry, Gerardo, but I can't resist adding a footnote about Oggi: Owner Eloy Roy last week pulled out of Oggi's second location (in the Costa Brava condo on Island Avenue), saying he now plans to open a new spot in Bal Harbour.

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