La Valentina serves up Mexican and a good party, but can it compete with the Big Cheese?
Steve Satterwhite

Cheesecake Survivor

You can't really fault the Cheesecake Factory people if, over the years, they've developed a bemused attitude while the front window of their popular eatery in the Aventura Mall food court has intermittently reflected the changing of restaurant signs in the space across the way. Soyka tried a News Café approach and failed. China Grill Management tried a News Café approach and failed. Even Allen Susser jumped into the fray for a short time, lending his name and expertise to the Paramount Grill, which is situated above the Factory, thus depriving Cheesecakers from getting to gloat directly at the seemingly inevitable "out of business" sign that now dangles from the premises.Meanwhile the cheesy chain continues to pack its indoor and outdoor seats with mall shoppers and moviegoers from the AMC multiplex two levels up. Welcome to the newest reality show, Cheesecake Factory Survivor. Next contestant: La Valentina Mexican Restaurant.

La Valentina, like its predecessors, is operated by a veteran restaurant team -- other branches exist in Mexico City, Ixtapa, Guadalajara, and Monterrey. I'm not certain where the emphasis lay in those Mexican Valentinas, but the operative word here is "fun." Part of the thus-far-substantial weekend Aventura crowd gravitates toward the bar area for tropically flavored margaritas, imported Mexican beers, and lots of shots of tequila served with matching shots of tomato juice. The rest of the well-dressed clientele are divided into couples, small groups, and large parties at long tables ordering platters and platters of food. The lights are dim, the din of diners is absorbed by faux-adobe walls, and the mariachi band plays on. And on.

In past columns I've made clear my fear and abhorrence of strolling mariachi bands, but I have to admit that the guys working Valentina are the best I've ever shied away from. They blend traditional mariachi tunes with everything from merengue and pop to a rousing rendition of "Hava Nagila." Then again, if you share my lack of enthusiasm over tableside entertainment you'll be pleased to know that Valentina is a sprawling dining room, with many more tables outdoors (200 seats altogether), so, good as the band may be, at times it roams far, far away.


La Valentina

Biscayne Boulevard and 196th Street (in the Aventura Mall)

305-705-1686. Open for lunch and dinner daily, noon until 11:00 p.m.

A short list of appetizers starts with chips and either guacamole or salsa, though a complimentary bowl of chips, with tomatilla salsa and a smokily delicious chipotle dip, might dissuade you from going that route. A better beginning comes via the Baja specialty, fish tacos, which feature strands of grilled snapper tossed with pineapple, onion, and cilantro in soft corn tortillas made here.

Quesadillas were good too, differentiated from the common version in that the melted Oaxaca string cheese is pocketed by half-moons of flaky corn masa dough, not tortillas. Valentina's take on salbutes, puffy corn tortilla cups filled with chicken strips tossed in achiote sauce, qualified as satisfying, but the signature garnish of pickled red onions, to many the highlight of this Yucatecan favorite, were too few and too bland. For a beverage I'd recommend one of the Mexican import beers, as the margaritas taste like a mix and, worse, are way weak.

In a nod to Havana-born Angel Gali, Valentina's founder, a pair of Cuban specialties are showcased on the menu: slowly roasted, sour orange-marinated chicken with yuca; and baby pork prepared the same way and paired with black beans and rice. These items are no longer being served, however, which leaves the menu devoid of any pork dish (excepting chorizo sausage on a combo plate) or nonbreast chicken item.

Lack of the first is perhaps due to the ethnicity of some clientele (as is the inclusion of certified kosher rib-eye steak), but it would be advantageous if one of the five chicken entrées contained a little backbone. Mole poblano would be an ideal spot to utilize whole pieces of the bird, as is usually the custom. Here the mole sauce, a smooth, slightly piquant blend of chilies, spices, seeds, and bitter chocolate, bathes a moist, thick breast instead. An accompanying tomato-based rice, with flecks of peas and carrots, was a tasteless, mushy sop.

Other chicken treatments include a breast coated with sweet and sour sauce made of tamarind and chilies; corn-stuffed breast with creamy poblano chili sauce; and breast marinated in lemon, vinegar, and chilies, grilled on a wood-fired stove, and topped with a flavorful quenelle of guacamole. This last dish isn't particularly exciting, but will please those who prefer the lean and light.

So will the fajitalike molcajetes, where a choice of chicken, beef tenderloin, flank steak, fish fingers, or a combo (which is where that chorizo comes in) gets served sizzlingly grilled, with a basket of corn tortillas and salsa -- pestled tableside in a molcajete, the traditional black, rough-textured, three-legged bowl made from volcanic rock.

Seafood selections continue the theme of strong flavors and simple preparations: Salmon gets an adobo marinade, tuna a chili piquín sauce, and grilled red snapper arrives on a cactus paddle, surrounded by a sauce redolent of chilies and cumin. Unfortunately the snapper was not snappy fresh.

Cuitlacoche is a bulbous fungus that attacks ears of corn and swells the kernels to ten times their normal size; it also turns the corn dark-gray to black in color (the word cuitlatl means excrement, and cochi is black). American farmers have customarily destroyed the fungus, which you would too now that you know what the name implies, but Mexicans prize the smoky sweet flavor, which tastes something like an earthy mix of mushrooms and corn. Paired with soft white pot cheese alluringly spiked with serrano peppers, a black pool of cuitlacoche accompanies filete Meztlí, one of three beef tenderloin preparations (chili-dusted rib-eye is Valentina's other red-meat option). While the filet was underseasoned and weakly crusted, it was also ultratender and undeniably a generous hunk of meat for under $20. Just about every entrée, including shrimp and grilled tuna, is similarly well priced, as are appetizers, all less than $10.

La Valentina bills itself as alta cocina Mexicana, the implication being a cuisine that rises above the cheesy, saucy, Tex-Mex dreck of mediocre chains. While it certainly doesn't reach the culinary heights of the haute specialties served at Eduardo de San Angel in Fort Lauderdale, nor does it exude the comforting authenticity of Homestead's south-of-the-border eateries, Valentina's spunky fare, hunky-dory prices, and fun, friendly, festive environment will with luck be enough to keep it from being voted off the food court. Stay tuned.


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