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Now that pan-Asian cuisine seems to be going the way of grunge, I've been wondering all summer what Miami's restaurateurs have in store for us. I read the latest issue of Vogue, noting the minimalist, asymmetrical patterns, the narrow pants and military-inspired jackets -- and prayed powdered eggs and chipped beef on toast weren't on deck. Glamour provided even less insight, though I did learn ten ways to tell if my husband is having an affair, so the endeavor wasn't a total loss. Finally I bowed to logic and took a tour of the city, noting what restaurants are under construction. And what did I see? Mexican food. Tex-Mex. Southwest-Mex. Cal-Mex. Down-home Mex. Gourmet Mex.
A few establishments (Moe's Cantina, Mex Mess, and Tita's, all on South Beach) have been in place for months. Others (La Villa Mexican Grill in North Miami Beach, Checho's in Aventura, Tex Mex Cafe in Kendall, Los Girasoles in Coral Gables) have opened recently to favorable response. Still more (El Ranchito in Bay Harbor Islands and Tequila Sunrise in Coral Gables) are works in progress. But the border has definitely been crossed. And I couldn't be happier; with a couple of notable exceptions, Miami has always lacked good Mexican food.
One of those exceptions, the long-lived Paquito's in North Miami Beach, has the distinction of being both trendy and stable at the same time. Last year owner Luis Alonso was forced to close his doors for seven months when the widening of Biscayne Boulevard dictated that his family's restaurant, in the lobby of a hotel built in 1945, be torn down. (Meanwhile, a strip mall was built near the spot where the new Paquito's would be located.) The makeover rewarded Alonso's patience with an expansion (from 90 seats to 260), new, roomier digs (complete with a separate bar), and, after three months back on the scene, a resounding business, as if customers are cheerfully making up for the lost time.
The main dining room, which overlooks a canal, is filled with light that bounces off the artsy Mexican crafts crammed onto the walls. You could spend hours looking at the hundreds of items -- if your attention weren't completely absorbed by the delightfully fresh tortilla chips, fried in the restaurant, and the spicy, cilantro-laden salsa. I took along my young nephew Dylan, and for the first fifteen minutes he uttered only two words: chip and dip. But I've got to admit that the adults at the table didn't say much else either.
Those same chips are the base for crab nachos: a thin layer of golden triangles supporting a large patchwork quilt of melted cheese, jalapeno rings, and a cooling dose of sour cream. Beneath the cheese lurked a plethora of fake crab meat, a situation that tends to make me as peevish as a two-year-old. But I didn't mind so much this time -- the "crab" had been sauteed in garlic and butter before being baked with the chips and cheese, and the result was tolerably tasty. To complement the nachos (which come with chicken, beef, or Mexican sausage, as well as the crab), we also ordered a side of oniony guacamole, made from nice ripe mashed avocados.
Paquito's offers a selection of cheesy appetizers, including quesadillas and two sizes of "Mexican pizzas" (a crisp flour tortilla topped with ground beef, black olives, green peppers, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, cheese, and jalapenos), but it's possible to begin your meal dairy-free, with ceviche, shrimp cocktail, or a number of soups and salads. Though these aren't necessarily light -- albondiguitas (meatball) soup was a hearty mixture of chopped carrots, onions, and celery, so filled with vegetables there was hardly room for the chicken broth. A few tiny meatballs floated in the bowl as best they could, given the competition. A delicious salpicon salad was absolutely huge, iceberg lettuce topped with marinated shredded beef and a piquant pico de gallo. The tomatoes and chilies in the relish and a tangy lime flavor in the dressing soaked into the meat, which was wonderfully tender and tasty.
The extensive entree list is divided into myriad categories, and decisions are tough. We chose most of our main courses from the section entitled "My Grandmother's Recipes," a pronouncement that grabbed our attention. And held it. Mole verde proved to be one of the most interesting dishes I've had in awhile. Boneless hunks of pork (chicken and beef are the other options) were blanketed with a rich green sauce comprising chilies, tomatillos, ground pepitos (pumpkin seeds), cilantro, and parsley. So skillfully blended was this mole that it was difficult to distinguish its ingredients. Multihued Mexican short-grain rice mixed with corn, carrots, peas, lima beans, and green beans, along with smooth, musky refried beans topped with queso blanco, completed the generous serving.
Rice, beans, and guacamole were mounded next to carne asada a la tampiquena, a charbroiled sirloin steak. The supple, smoky meat was flanked on each side by a cheese enchilada, the melted white cheese oozing out of a fried corn tortilla shell barely dampened by a mildly peppered tomato sauce. "Chicken Paquito's," accompanied by rice and beans, was an equally pleasant preparation, not too spicy despite its billing. Boneless white-meat chunks had been moistened in jalapeno juice before being coated with flour and sauteed in garlic butter. Then, crisp-edged, they were garnished with jalapeno rings and mushrooms. Having already stuffed himself on the crab nachos, Dylan declared his satisfaction with this dish by ingesting half and throwing the rest at his mother (whom he adores).
We left Grandma's kitchen for a regional seafood specialty, camarones Ixtapa. The waiter warned us about touching the rim of the (extremely hot) serving plates, but I should have held my tongue back as well as my hands -- the molten, caper-adorned tomato sauce that covered the half-dozen jumbo shrimp burned my mouth. This was a fabulous combination, though, aromatic with green olives, bell peppers, and onions -- quite filling when ladled over the side of Mexican rice. I was most impressed by the size and quality of the fresh, meaty shrimp, which had been glazed in garlic butter, then simmered in the tomato sauce.
Dessert can be staid and traditional (fried ice cream, tres leches, or flan) or South Florida (key lime pie). For a change we chose the pie, a rich wedge of tart, creamy custard that was only slightly marred by being a bit too grainy with undissolved sugar.
I don't have the money or patience to spring for a whole new Vogue wardrobe. And I'm not about to go through my husband's pockets looking for matchbooks with furtively scribbled phone numbers. But I think I can tolerate a few exploratory forays over the border. If the refurbished Paquito's is any indication of the strength of the Mexican trend that's about to hit this town, then I predict a fulfilling, nacho-munching year.
Key lime pie