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Borderline

JOE ROCCO

My wife has more than once accused me of being narrow-minded when it comes to the hot-button topic of immigration. She has even called my main talking point on the issue simplistic. I admit nothing of the sort, although I acknowledge the slogan "No Mexican immigrants, no Mexican restaurants — or at least no good ones" is too much of a mouthful to be an effective chant at rallies.

So I propose we set up test kitchens every hundred miles along the U.S.-Mexico border, to be used exclusively by those with culinary experience who wish to enter the country. Mexican teachers, doctors, lawyers, farmers, and pharmacists will still apply in the usual manner — while the kitchen stations could serve as chefs-only SunPass lanes on the road to citizenship. Anyone wishing to take part in the program will stop at the designated area nearest his or her home, and if he or she is able to whip up an impeccable chimichanga, or some other specialty, in front of a small panel of food-savvy tasters, whoosh — welcome to America and here are your papers. Sure there are expenses and logistics to be ironed out, but government plans call for $39 million to be spent for every one mile of fencing along the border. I'm pretty certain you can build a decent test kitchen for a lot less.

Those who don't pass can return home and work in a restaurant to upgrade their abilities, and then try again in a year, and a year after that, for as long as it takes. The extra culinary training will only help their future chef endeavors.

To get to Mexico Mio, a new Pinecrest venture, head down South Dixie Highway to SW 95th Street and hook a left into the strip mall. The eatery's twenty wooden tables are set atop tile floors and surrounded by earth-tone walls adorned with bright artwork. An able and affable waitstaff is quick to carry salsa and chips to the table, which generally spur diners to order beverages — most notably wine-based margaritas and beers from a wide array of Mexican imports.

A typical bill of tacos, tostadas, tamales, burritos, flautas, enchiladas, and chimichangas are available as main courses or à la carte items, but the menu is not your common mumbo-jumbo of combo plates. In fact there's only one, the "Mexico Mio Platter," a starter selection containing a fresh beef taco; crisp chicken flauta; no-frills quesadilla (a pale tortilla with a thin line of melted cheese); regrettably dry pork tamal; and queso fundido, which is a bowl of melted cheese enlivened by sautéed tomatoes, onions, and peppers. Sour cream and guacamole are offered, too, the latter not the pastel green of fresh, ripe avocados but the darker hue of ... something other than fresh, ripe avocados.

The restaurant's self-proclaimed signature dish arrived in a large, black lava rock bowl called a molcajete, which contained strips of beef simmered in a heartily seasoned, if overly salty, tomato-guajillo sauce. The red guajillo pepper is similar to chipotle in its medium-hot, slightly tart taste but offers a less-pronounced smokiness. A small, thin grilled cactus paddle protruded from the side of the molcajete, as did a thumb-size rectangle of grilled Oaxaca-style string cheese and a couple of limply cooked scallions. Parsimonious portions of yellow rice and refried beans accompany this and most other entrées; the former was too dry, the latter too wet. Choice of flour or corn tortillas are offered, too, but $21.95 is a bit much for what amounted to a small portion of meat in sauce. Most main courses run from $9 to $12.

I forgot to add one detail about my proposed immigration plan: Upon entering America, each successful participant will be handed a pamphlet describing truth-in-menu laws. This way we can avoid the sort of unfortunate misrepresentations that permeate Mexico Mio's bill of fare. Shrimp cocktail, for instance, comprised eight plump crustaceans clinging to a glass — a generous amount for $10 — but the shellfish were not "marinated" as advertised, simply boiled and served with the sort of sugar-laden, cornstarch-gloppy salsa one usually associates with cheap bottled brands. The "variety of fresh fish" in a main course ceviche was tilapia, small cubes of which were ringed by shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, and avocado (not listed on the menu, but a nice, ripe surprise). The ingredients practically floated in the plates' deep pool of lime-juice/cilantro marinade.

I will not quibble with the "giant" poblano pepper of chile relleno not being particularly large, nor will any complaints be registered regarding the fluffy battered exterior and fulsome flavor of shredded beef within. However, as for what is described as "delicious ranchero sauce," better to leave the adjective-writing to those who get paid to look them up in a thesaurus. I would define the tomato-based sauce as — wait a second — fair to middling.

Much to our relief, there was no curry involved in the enchilada swathed in "curry molé sauce." The term is presumably meant to imply that molé, like curry, is composed of a mix of spices. The sauce was heavy on the bitter chocolate and sweetness, but the shreds of chicken rolled within the corn tortilla were tender and moist, as if just torn from a freshly roasted bird.

Chicken in molé sauce, on the other hand, was decidedly south-of-the-border. The "slow-cooked chicken leg quarter" turned out to be a too-long-cooked breast that was unappealingly dry, and the molé tasted vastly different from the one enveloping the enchilada (we ordered the two dishes on separate visits). This version was equally sweet, but that's all it was; it's difficult to imagine a molé with less complexity.

There was no leg/breast mixup concerning the chicken in our pozole; the promised poultry was omitted altogether. Pozole is a soup supped throughout most regions of Mexico. Sometimes the broth is anchored by red chilies, other times by green tomatillos, but it is almost always served in a large earthenware bowl and comes succulently stocked with hominy (large white corn kernels), meats, and ground pumpkin seeds. Fresh vegetables and/or other crunchy ingredients are traditionally plated separately, diners thus able to accessorize their soup as they see fit. Mexico Mio's side plate came with sliced cabbage, radish, onion, lime, and a small mound of dried oregano — pretty much the way they serve it in Michoacán and Mexico City. The slightly spicy red tomato broth contained chunks of softly simmered pork shoulder but, as I stated, was missing the chicken (and also the pumpkin seeds). Unless you're really into having soup for a main course, it might be best to split this generous serving into three or four cups as a starter.

Fried ice cream brings a sizable sphere of hard, frozen vanilla ice cream wrapped in fried batter just as hard and frozen. This curious process of freezing the fried ice cream takes away the enticing hot-cold contrast, which is the only sane reason I can think of to plop a scoop of ice cream into a fryer in the first place. Alternative desserts include fried banana with honey syrup, fried tortilla chips with cinnamon sugar, and for those who prefer greaseless sweets, rice pudding and flan.

Should my notion of border test kitchens ever become a reality, I would be willing to volunteer as one of the tasters. Suppose the kitchen crew of Mexico Mio were to approach my station: Would I let them into the country? If they auditioned their chicken molé, probably not. But I'd be very supportive and enthusiastic in telling them to try again next time around, because the food at Mexico Mio is, for the most part, borderline.


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