Tex-Mex Times Two

As we often do, we had food left over that we intended to take with us. But our waitress, still shaken by the oyster fiasco, was personally offended that we hadn't finished it all there and then. "I feel like I've struck out with you guys," she said.

Look, I wanted to tell her, it's nothing personal, just big eyes and a small appetite -- and a need to review more than just a dish or two. I intended to order dessert to prove to her that we liked the meal enough to stay for the mango rice pudding creme brulee, or at least another round of margaritas. But she served us the check instead, saying, "You guys don't want dessert, do you?" Guess not.

Celebrating its first-year anniversary, Mex Mess instituted Ballesteros's new, mostly Southwestern menu this past September, replacing the former mostly Mexican list. Word about this change for the better has yet to get out -- the Washington Avenue restaurant, which has an unfettered view of the Club Madonna nudie bar, was largely empty the night we visited. But unless our pessimistic server stands at the door apologizing in advance, it isn't likely to remain that way for long.

Service at Tita's was also strangely oversolicitous. Between our server, the busboy, and owner Jody MacDonald (of T-dance fame), the visits to our table numbered over twenty -- and that doesn't include the arrival of the food. A hands-off policy would let the customer chew without having to nod yes or no at the same time.

The fare here is a bit riskier in design than at Mex Mess, lower-priced and chili-reliant to an extreme. A roasted poblano soup was flavored with little else, unfortunately, leaving a dishwatery but spicy impression on the palate. Grilled chicken, summer squash, avocado chunks, and strips of fried tortillas all lurked in the depths, but a menu-promised splash-'n'-dash of lime and cilantro was undetectable. As was salt.

We liked the poblano better as an ingredient in the roasted corn tamale appetizer ($5.00). Filled with black beans, the crumbly tamale, a bit too dry, was served in a corn husk and drenched with cilantro cream. This was a plain presentation of an adequate dish. Starters were saved by the ensalada de Taos, a pretty mix of mesclun, roasted kernels of corn, grilled yellow squash, and red onions ($5.50). Toasted pumpkin seeds, billed on the menu, were missing, a real shame given the jones for pepitas I've had ever since I started passing pumpkin stands on my way to work. But a tangy roasted red pepper vinaigrette improved matters, as did another basket of the just-fried tortilla chips and roasted tomato-onion salsa.

Like Mex Mess, Tita's relies mainly on roasting and grilling, a preference that becomes clear not only from the menu but also from the amount of smoke pouring out of the open kitchen. The cactus burrito used both cooking methods to good effect. A gigantic whole wheat tortilla was folded around grilled nopales (edible cactus), roasted garlic spinach, refried black beans, Monterey jack cheese, and overcooked Mexican rice. Green chili sauce garnished the burrito, which had been baked until crisp in the oven and garnished with juicy tomato slices. Also like Mex Mess's, this was unfinishable, though my companion strove valiantly.

Pollo dulce was half a honey-pecan roasted hen, a huge amount of food for $9.00. This was one of the best poultry experiences I've ever had in a restaurant, both white and dark meat slipping juicy and tender off the bone. A creamy sweet potato mash, light and fluffy, and an autumny ragout of okra, portobello mushrooms, and roasted corn were terrific. Even the roasted corn on the cob garnish was a treat (one well-done piece explained the smoke).

No oysters here, but "scallops Incas" were pearls in themselves ($12.50). Five sea scallops were coated with a crushed ginger mixture and quickly seared, then placed on a pond of black bean sauce that tasted more like chilies than beans. The delicate scallops were a bit overwhelmed by the ginger but greatly complemented by a red chili-flavored quinoa and a sprightly avocado-cucumber-onion salad.

Dessert was limited to an espresso flan or churros; we chose the latter and won ourselves a long wait for both the pastry and the bill. Both were worth it. The churros, fresh from the deep-fryer but nongreasy and coated with honey, were a fabulous end to this downright cheap meal. The tiled floor may slope, the prehistoric-looking lights that hang from the ceiling may have an eerie glow, but Tita's kitchen can (quite literally) smoke.

So when it comes down to the main difference between these places, I can think only of the Sunday brunch that Tita's is about to introduce. And when it comes down to making the dining decision regarding these Southwestern restaurants -- both stylish, both smart, both worthy -- I can think only of one possible solution: Eat twice.

Mex Mess Cantina Mexicana and Southwestern Cafe
1522 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 532-4444. Open nightly from 5:30 to midnight, Friday and Saturday till 1:00 a.m.

Tita's
1445 Pennsylvania Ave, Miami Beach; 535-2497. Open Tuesday -- Thursday and Sunday from 6:30 to 11:30, Friday through Sunday till midnight.

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