Borderline Call

Would-be restaurateurs, take note: It is possible to move up the waitstaff ladder into ownership. But you might not want to ask Vicki Pruitt and Neal Spangler for pointers. Ten years after she and Spangler took over Cisco's Cafe, until then an outlet of a Mexican bodega-type chain run by the Chart House corporation and dismantled by Pillsbury after a buyout, Pruitt is still shaking her head. "I wouldn't have sold the place to somebody like us," she says.

"Like us" translates to restaurant peons -- staff employees with no prior ownership experience. Pruitt started with the Cisco's chain as a hostess at the Jacksonville branch, Spangler as a waiter in Tallahassee. They met in 1982 when they were both members of the crew here, and they decided to purchase the 375-seat restaurant when faced with the loss of their jobs in 1986. They didn't change the decor ("I replace things only when people pull them off the walls," says Pruitt) or the concept. Which means that while small homey touches such as homemade chips and salsas, great prices, and a good-humored management staff boost the place to its current status as the only one of its kind, the neon-sign and gas-fireplace Cisco's, a mishmash of tile-and-terra cotta influences pulled from every region of Mexico, is still something of a chain-restaurant experience.

One of the worst things about Cisco's is the wait for a table, typical on weekend evenings. But at least patrons can tap their toes at the bar, where complimentary tortilla chips and three kinds of salsa are continuously stocked -- and salsas are one of the best things about the restaurant. Even the mild version, a chunky tomato-and-onion, has a zing. The medium blend is smoother and seedier, while the hot sauce, a salsa verde, practically ripples with intensity.

Some of that intensity continues at the table, where the corn chips and salsa reappear. These are good enough to make an appetizer round almost unnecessary, but then you'd miss the pleasure of Cisco's warm, flaky flour tortilla chips, which were served with two of the starters. Freshly mixed guacamole was buttery with just-ripe avocados, juicy with bits of tomato and onion. Served in a molded corn tortilla shell, the dip was ladled onto shredded lettuce, which made the size of the portion misleading -- there's not as much as you think.

Fortunately another big scoop of guacamole topped the tasty nine-layer dip, a casserole dish baked with pinto beans, ground beef, chili con queso (a cheese sauce spiked with chilies), tomatoes, and scallions, then garnished with sour cream and black olives. This kitchen sink of a dish was a wonderfully gloppy mess, the ingredients melding together until they were impossible to distinguish from one another. The sturdy flour chips were perfect for its dripping, shirt-staining consumption.

A quesadilla -- Mexican grilled cheese -- was only a tad neater to eat, sliced into a half-dozen rather greasy wedges. Eleven fillings, everything from cauliflower to chili, are offered pizzeria-style; we chose chorizo and green chilies to be added to the melted cheese. The crumbled sausage was flavorful and pungent, but the chilies were a disappointment, long strips of limp peppers as devoid of heat as the Northeast. A garnish of shredded iceberg lettuce and chunky tomato salsa added some fresh flavor to the quesadillas, but for real garden appeal we ordered a dinner salad. Crisp lettuce was ringed with white onions and bell peppers and served with a choice of homemade dressings. We liked a thick creamy ranch but thought the pale green avocado dressing, of the same consistency as the mild-mannered ranch, was bland.

On the back of the take-out menu, a list of "Favorite Funnies" includes the joke slogan "A Mexican restaurant run by Americans." But with the entrees it became frustratingly clear these folks weren't kidding. Cisco's fajitas, burritos, tacos, enchiladas, and chimichangas are the standard homogenized creations Americans have come to expect from their neighborhood Mexican restaurants, minus regional flair and invention. Maybe we should have expected the fake crab meat in the enchiladas del mar, two soggy corn tortilla tubes stuffed with crab, shrimp, and fish. We couldn't identify any fish and found only one shrimp, a whole medium-size specimen. The white cream sauce and melted Monterey jack cheese were soothing but didn't elevate the disintegrating tortillas, which should have been fried first. A side portion of runny refried beans also was of no help, though a scoop of Mexican rice was pleasant: firm white kernels interspersed with green peas, carrots, and green beans.

A chili colorado burro was a giant flour tortilla wrapped around chunks of simmered sirloin steak and pinto beans, baked with cheddar cheese and drizzled with a tomato-based colorado sauce and sour cream. The idea sounded great, but the reality was a pot roast's bad dream. The meat, shredding to the touch, had a consistency like boiled flank steak, and wasn't enhanced by the wet tortilla shell. At least the beans were firm and had a good chili aroma, well matched by the peppery sauce.

Similar in shape to the burro, a chimichanga de pollo was a deep-fried flour tortilla tube bursting with shredded white-meat chicken. The fried tortilla stood up to the tangy ranchera sauce that covered it, and the chicken was moist and plentiful. Still, it was no match for the arroz con pollo, a chicken breast so plump it could have been a Playboy hen. Skinless and boneless, the juicy poultry was sauteed and sauced with a rich tomato, bell pepper, and onion combination. A pairing of Mexican rice and a healthy melon garnish made this dish big enough for two meals.

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