Mexican to Dine For

La Gloria is, for moviegoers, the most significant Mexican import since Like Water for Chocolate. That's because this new taqueria is located smack-dab in the midst of Coconut Grove's cineplexes, offering a transcendent alternative to mall-land's predictable fare. Mexican restaurants used to be just as predictable, but in recent years eating nuevo Mexican has become like much nonchain dining, as inscrutable as a box of chocolates: You never know what you're going to get until you try one. Why, there's not even any assurance they'll offer salsa and chips. La Gloria, as a matter of fact, doesn't.

Taqueria is the Mexican word for "taco eatery," a simple description that is often misleading. This is a modern and spacious restaurant, with four open dining areas that together seat 200. Mexican floor tiles, forged iron sconces and vases from the town of Valle de Bravo, chairs made of wood and mecate (Mexican rope), indigenous artwork, and brown paper coverings on the tabletops conspire to set a sleek and contemporary south-of-the-border mood.

The moniker taqueria is more accurate when it comes to the food. The menu is divided into seven categories, six of which feature the various forms of appetizer-size snacks that one might find at a Mexican taco stand. The first grouping, though, includes the actual starters, or santojitos, which basically are plain, baked, or fried corn tortillas topped or stuffed with sundry fillings. The sampler platter provides a fine introduction to these dishes, offering tastes of mole, cochinita pibil (a marinated pork dish), taquitos (fried chicken tacos), tingas (chicken with tomato-chipotle sauce), and sopes (thick tortilla with potato and chorizo).

Then again, you could just as easily start things off by selecting from the cheesy-things category (referred to on the menu as "de la parrilla del taco man"), which includes tacos, tostadas, and quesadillas -- again, all tortilla-based. La Gloria's plain tortillas, a basket of which is served steamy hot, are noticeably different from those you'll find at the supermarket. They taste authentic, and really splendid.

These same tortillas are fried and turned into crisp strips for the sopa de tortilla ($4.75), the quintessential Mexican soup. The version here presents a full range of textures and tastes in as simple a manner as possible: a rich tomato and chicken-stock base, cubes of creamy avocado and white cheese, hot chilies, and crunchy corn chips. If only the ceviche Acapulco were kept as basic. Tiny chopped pieces of mahi-mahi were zesty with lime juice and cilantro, but a tomato sauce imbued with an unpleasant, ketchuplike taste ruined it. Ceviche Nayarita was much better; same fish but with carrots and red onions in place of the cloying tomato.

Cactus pads, or nopales, are enjoyed in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Central and South America, but in this nation they remain relatively untasted. Perhaps the mucilaginous texture is deemed too icky for our picky palates, though any country that boasts of okra should be able to stomach a little cactus. Besides, if you double boil the plant, which has the color and some of the flavor of green peppers, the gooey exterior slips away. That's how it's prepared for La Gloria's cactus salad ($7.50), a cocktail glass filled with thin strands of cactus, tomatoes, and onion in a vinegary dressing. Extremely invigorating, and an excellent source of iron and vitamins A and C.

Less captivating was the nopalitos with potato, one of a number of stewlike dishes served in little clay pots (called cazuelas). The tomato sauce possessed a mildly tart and smoky guajillo chili kick, but the spud-and-cactus combo was nevertheless bland, and, yes, a bit slippery. Two of the other cazuelas, chicken mole ($8.25) and cochinita pibil, were excellent. Moles differ throughout Mexico much as curries vary in the East: different 'hoods, different spice mixtures. La Gloria tops its shredded white chicken meat with the most common of these combinations, mole poblano, a Pueblan specialty that includes dried chilies, nuts, seeds, vegetables, spices, lard, and a bit of chocolate. There was nothing common about the flavors, though: complex, multilayered, and perfectly piquant.

Cochinita pibil is traditionally made by wrapping pork in banana leaves and cooking it in an outdoor pit called a pibe. The restaurant version is made in an oven of course, but the meat is still marinated in brick-red achiote and bitter orange juice, then served with pickled red onions on top. My wife and I once spent an evening sitting at a rickety taqueria in Chichen Itza ordering these, one at a time, over and over again until we were stuffed. La Gloria's were less greasy and more expensive, but otherwise remarkably similar to the ones we enjoyed in Mexico.

The four entrees offered are more Americanized, a reasonable concession to native culinary sensibilities. The tenderloin tips with garlic, onions, and tomatoes ($14) tasted just fine, as did the succulent garlic-sauteed red snapper. All main courses come with rice and deliciously creamy, stingily portioned black beans.

La Gloria is well staffed, and the waiters were attentive to our needs. The restaurant has a full liquor license, and they make a decent margarita -- better than their sangria, which was overiced and underliquored. Desserts include a wonderful crepas de cajetas ($6.25), three soft crépes folded around dulce de leche and topped with ice cream made with Mexican vanilla beans. There's also a flan, which, when ordered in any Mexican or Spanish restaurant is not like choosing from an assortment of chocolates: They're all the same, with only the shape varying. This one was rectangular.

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