Spur Crazy

Remember that old saw, "You can't judge a book by its cover"? Sure, it's a cliche, but like all cliches it has a basis in truth. We all make assumptions based on appearances, every day of our lives. Even in these politically proper Nineties, when everyone works so hard not to say anything offensive that sometimes nothing can be said at all, we consciously or unconsciously snap-judge books, people, products in the supermarket, and yes, restaurants, using only the appeal of the exterior package as a tool for analysis. Assumptions are why we read what we do, why we make friends or date, why we buy things. They are what turn us off the road into the parking lot. Or what make us drive right on by.

SouthFork Grill & Bar, the promising new Tex-Mex mega-eatery nestled in a marina just off the Rickenbacker Causeway, may fall victim to your more negative assumptions. I admit, I almost dismissed it based solely on first impressions. So in order to help you avoid the book-cover pitfall, I've prepared a guide that will steer you in the right direction -- off the causeway, into the parking lot, up the stairs, through the doors, and onto a seat or barstool.

Assumption: SouthFork is a chain. The cutesy name, the cloned-sheep staff dressed in sleeveless denim button-downs, the red-white-and-blue Southwest Americana decor, the menu that says "Welcome pardner" on the front and "Howdy y'all!" on the back -- and explains those terms. This place practically shouts "theme restaurant" from every corner. A more telling clue: The items on the menu come with tag lines that link SouthFork to Texas. The tortilla soup won a "San Antonio's Best" award; chicken Laredo is "a San Antonio favorite"; fajitas are "the Great San Antonio original." More than a dozen dishes are listed as "signature." For a restaurant that's only five weeks old, these are some mighty tall claims, seemingly established elsewhere.

Fact: SouthFork isn't a chain -- yet. Proprietor Denis Lanou, who also owns the South Beach nightclub Amnesia, may have aspirations in that direction, according to catering manager Jennifer Harman. But that all depends on how SoFo is received in SoFlo, a common test market for the launch of such ventures. As for the San Antonio connection, Lanou made an unusual deal with the Alamo Cafe, a popular restaurant with two locations (and a corporate headquarters) in that South Texas city: He sent his entire kitchen staff to train there and got permission to use the joint's dishes as his own. (One wonders why, if this place isn't going to be a chain after all, he didn't just hire a chef who knew how to cook Tex-Mex food and had his own recipes.)

Assumption: SouthFork, which touts nightly live music, imports country acts. Certainly this locale is an obvious choice for such a venue. I always don my ten-gallon rain-catcher and snakeskin roach-killers immediately after paying the buck toll so as not to look out of place on the Key.

Fact: SouthFork hosts local jazz and blues performers, such as Fleet Starbuck, Larry Pamilio, and two gals who go by the moniker Kelly and Julie, upstairs in the "Whiskies 'n' Stogies" room. (Yes, there's a humidor, along with booths, full-service booze, and the complete menu.) A second spot in which to catch an act, a 375-seat outdoor deck, is under construction. When that opens at the end of July, guests will be treated to the strains of country rock, reggae, and Top 40 drifting toward them down the road. Luckily Key Biscayne abodes are a better distance away from SouthFork than the homes of South Beachites, who have complained about their "noisy neighbor" Amnesia so vehemently that the club was recently shut down by the city. (A judge later overturned that action, at least for the time being.)

Assumption: SouthFork is a finished product. The weathered two-story building appears complete even without the anticipated deck. Parking lots filled with cars surround the restaurant, so the place looks packed. Inside the staff is chummy, hugging each other, and so polite that a host actually escorted me to the restroom when I requested directions, leaving me at the door with a well-intentioned if odd farewell: "Have a good one."

Fact: SouthFork is a work-in-progress. Not only is the deck forthcoming, so are moorings for boats; pleasure cruisers will tie up for a "SouthFork Texarita" (frozen margarita) or frozen sangria. The young, bouncy staff is still just a little unsure about how certain dishes are made. They also rush, forget, and confuse courses, and are subject to mishaps. On one visit a gigantic crash signaled the slip and fall of our server in the kitchen. A second waitress took over for her, explaining that our server was "just a little bit frustrated right now." I caught a glimpse of the first girl's arm when she later returned to the fray, and it appeared more than "frustrated" -- it looked downright swollen. (I can relate: Once, after boasting to fellow employees that I'd never dropped a tray, I took a terrific spill and lost my grip on an entire meal right in front of the table I was preparing to serve.)

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
$4.95
Tijuana egg rolls
$7.25
Beef and chicken fajitas (half-pound)
$10.95
Barbecue ribs (full rack)
$17.95

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