Spur Crazy

Some of the fare could also stand some work. "San Antonio ensalada" was commercial, a bowl of chopped romaine draped with jack cheese that tasted like soap, flavorless tomato wedges, dried-up sliced black olives, quartered boiled eggs, wedges of unripe avocado, and croutons that could only have come from a box. To add insult to injury, a vinaigrette of sweet peppers, lime, and cilantro tasted like it came from a bottle. Another mediocre starter, the "grande gazpacho," was a chilled medley of pureed fresh tomato, carrot, red onion, and celery, but was overwhelmed by the celery. Served with homemade tortilla chips, this was nowhere near as appealing as the fiery salsa served with the same crunchy triangles at the start of the meal.

But there's a lot of good stuff to be had, starting with superior soup-and-salad options. House salad was delightful, a mix of field greens sprinkled with musky gorgonzola; honey-sticky baked walnuts and chunks of papaya peeked among the lettuces, and a tangy balsamic vinaigrette united the ingredients. Though not very spicy, a bowl of chicken chili was also a winner: a mix of stewed white beans and long-cooked chunks of chicken, given spark and color by tomatoes, bell peppers, and onions and topped with cheddar cheese and chopped scallions. This pairing, accompanied by a couple of the excellent homemade flour tortillas prepared at a corner station, could make for a satisfying and inexpensive meal.

Some of the elementally fulfilling appetizers are wonderful as well. A half-dozen whole "buzzard wings," served standing on end like something out of a Flintstones episode and large enough to have come from turkeys, were juicy and meaty, coated in a slightly searing, plum-colored hot sauce. Though not truly Buffalo-style, the wings were served with celery stalks and a blue cheese dressing, which was thin and insipid. Something Southwestern might be a more invigorating choice here -- like, say, the ancho chili remoulade that comes with the Tijuana egg rolls. For these, fajita-spiced chicken was finely chopped, mixed with bell peppers, onions, corn, cilantro, and cheese, then stuffed into egg roll skins. Though deep-fried, the egg rolls showed no sign of grease; the meltingly good filling was a complement to the crisp, bubbly shell.

If you prefer your fajita-spiced chicken in the form of fajitas, you may order it that way, either as a half-pound or a full pound. But be warned: One pound of boneless chicken is a lot of chicken. We tried the beef and chicken combo, which was delicious, comprising sizzling strips of char-grilled chicken and tender strips of steak lined up over a mound of sauteed green peppers and onions. A chunky guacamole, notable for its fresh flavor as well as for its lack of any discernible tomato or spice, was ideal for stuffing into the elastic flour tortillas along with the meat, sour cream, and finely shredded cheese.

But a twelve-ounce rib eye steak, described on the menu as "perfectly trimmed and marbled" Black Angus beef, looked more like six ounces of meat and six ounces of fat. I like my meat marbled -- let's face it, fat adds flavor and keeps things from drying out -- but this layer o' lard was gristly and unappealing. The price, at any rate, was right, given that the dish came with a house salad and a choice of a jumbo sweet potato, baked white potato, fries, or Mexican rice (as do all entrees).

Acapulco chicken, a grilled boneless butterfly-shaped breast, was of higher quality, aside from a too-dry tropical macadamia nut salsa that was more like shredded coconut than a relish.

The best entree by far was provided by a departure from the South Texas theme: barbecued St. Louis ribs, available as a two-pound (full) or one-pound (half) rack. Literally falling off the bone, the surprisingly lean pork was rich and tangy with an excellent homemade barbecue sauce that also went extremely well with the accompanying golden-crisp shoestring French fries and lightly dressed cole slaw.

It's worth noting here that SouthFork's varied menu includes plenty of choices for vegetarians. Some options: spinach and artichoke dip, vegetable fajitas, or a juicy portobello mushroom sandwich. This last, served on a fresh-baked roll, was soaked in balsamic vinegar and grilled like a burger, then served with sliced tomatoes and red onion, a creamy garlic dressing, as well as the ever-present house salad. "Ranger Rick onion rings" proved a righteous partner for the mushroom -- large sweet white onion rings coated in spiced batter and deep-fried, then served with a subtle jalapeno ketchup.

If dessert seems superfluous after such a meal, skip it. We didn't but later felt we should have: A flourless chocolate torte tasted like wet cardboard, while fruit cobbler, mostly peaches with over-buttered crumbs and a stale pastry crust, was heated to such an extreme that the steam was practically volcanic.

But don't skip SouthFork. Consistency should come, perhaps along with the live music and the deckp. This may be the first link of a future chain, but for now it's ours alone.

SouthFork Bar & Grill
3301 Rickenbacker Cswy, Key Biscayne; 365-9391. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Sunday brunch from 10:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

White bean chicken chili
Tijuana egg rolls
Beef and chicken fajitas (half-pound)
Barbecue ribs (full rack)

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