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.

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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