Tex-Mex Times Two

South Beach's Mex Mess Cantina Mexicana and Southwestern Cafe and Tita's became inexorably linked in my mind when they opened within months of each other last year. Both have Mexican-sounding names -- the latter refers to the character from Lara Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, a lovelorn girl who blended her emotions into her recipes -- but the focus at these moderately priced restaurants is primarily Southwestern (Mex Mess does serve some south of the border fare, designated on the menu by sombreros). Both have name chefs with a Southwestern background: Mex Mess imported Eduardo Rios Ballesteros, who was sous chef for Santa Fe's Coyote Cafe, while Tita's features self-taught chef-proprietor Noel Busby, who learned his trade from noted New Texas cuisine originator Stephan Pyles. Both restaurants are located away from the oft-trod Art Deco path; both were packed from the start, then lost some customers when the season ended and locals were slow to return. Both won awards in our 1996 Best of Miami issue -- Mex Mess for Best Burrito, Tita's for Best Southwestern Restaurant.

It seemed logical, then, that if I reviewed one I'd review the other. But I decided to search for differences rather than similarities. So, as in any good science experiment, I limited the variables: dining with the same number of companions, making reservations (unnecessary, as it turned out), and saying the same prayers for a decent meal at each.

One thing I didn't do, however, is try to order the same dinner at both places -- it would have been unfair and boring to make a direct comparison between menus. After all, though Southwestern cuisine as a regional invention draws on a limited variety of ingredients, including corn, beans, and innumerable chili peppers, the chefs have unique ways of putting them together.

At Mex Mess, for instance, the fare is slightly more colorful, perhaps so as to complement the elaborately painted interior, done up with salamanders and other Southwestern trappings. Ballesteros has an eye for the color wheel, decorating his red and green mesclun salad (spelled mezculen on the menu, as if it were good enough to be a hallucinogen) with bright Roma tomatoes and sliced yellow peppers ($5.00). Shredded white jicama nested on top of the fresh crisp lettuces and a slightly sweet vinaigrette.

The restaurant was out of "yellow and green gazpacho" the night we visited, so we got a gorgeous mess of nachos instead. Slightly stale tricolor tortilla chips, which were also served at the beginning of the meal with a dish of somewhat tame salsa, were baked with black beans, red chili sauce, and cheddar and Monterey cheeses, then loaded with guacamole, chipotle sour cream, salsa, lettuce, diced tomatoes, and green onions ($5.00). Since it was nearly impossible to distinguish the nachos' individual ingredients, we voted positively on the sum of its parts, even though the chips grew somewhat soggy under all that stuff.

The pan-fried oysters were unsuccessful because of one unexpected ingredient. Chomping down on yellow-corn-meal-coated shellfish, one of my companions hit a hard foreign object, a piece of shell or something. Closer inspection revealed that it was an unfinished pearl, a turn of events that really excited the staff. "You're so lucky!" they squealed. I took a different view -- shell, pebble, or pearl, oysters should be cleaned. I lost my appetite for the mound of shellfish still perched on the bed of arugula and cascabel chili sauce. "Don't you like it?" our waitress finally asked. I did, I assured her, especially the papaya salsa that garnished the salad; I just didn't want to jeopardize my dental work. She looked crestfallen, deeply wounded by our rejection, but took the oyster appetizer off the bill anyway.

Main courses were devoid of tooth-breaking tidbits. They were also fairly large, too big to finish. Satisfyingly rich vegetable enchiladas, for instance, two red corn tortillas stuffed with sweet zucchini and carrots, were sided by both a tasty Mexican rice and refried beans. The whole was served like a casserole, lidded with pasilla chili sauce and melted cheese. Lettuce and chopped tomatoes, salsa, and a scoop each of chipotle sour cream and guacamole made the dish as mountainous as the nachos. Skip the chips if you're going to tackle this.

I hardly ever think of fish portions as being too big, but the salmon estilo Yucatan filled me up and then some ($15.00). Wrapped in a banana leaf (but served without it) and seared over a newly installed mesquite grill, the ultra-fresh salmon fillet was coated with spices and flavored with lime juice and butter. The flaky fish was set on a pile of baby lettuces, then topped with a julienne of carrots and zucchini. Mesquite-grilled strip steak was an equally daunting dish to consume ($18.00). The twelve-ounce New York sirloin was sliced into thick, medium-rare chunks, then propped up against an oozy-cheesy Santa Fe version of scalloped potatoes. The taters were in turn almost hidden by a frenzy of fried "cowboy" onions, crisp and just a little greasy. This recipe had great flavors but was a little heavy, particularly because of an oily guajillo chili sauce that dressed the plate.

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