El Scorpion Mexican Kitchen & Tequila Bar comes to Miami Beach

Joe Rocco

Jeffrey Chodorow's China Grill Management restaurants, from Blue Door and Asia de Cuba to the namesake venue, are well known in these parts for providing brashly conceptualized plates of food in grand settings. Chodorow is part of a group that recently opened El Scorpion Mexican Kitchen & Tequila Bar, but this venture is mostly in the hands of his partner, son Zach. The result is less glam than papa's properties, yet Scorpion's focus on providing fun with the fare indicates the avocado hasn't fallen far from the tree.

Scorpion, in fact, is located just across the street from China Grill, in the spot where Tuscan Steak used to be. But the 124-seat room has been smartly redefined. A long bar flanks the right side of the space, except now it is backlit in white and its base wrapped in chainlink fencing. Semicircular banquettes front the opposite wall of stone masonry, which is adorned with large photos of agave plants. The floor and tables are wood, the ceiling and lighting are low, bulky pillars are sheathed in blackboard chalked with vaguely Aztec patterns, and a pool table stands in the backroom. Scorpion looks precisely as a Mexican cantina in South Beach should.

Diners begin with a little tin bucket of complimentary chips: thin, corny, greaseless, and crisp. After a first visit, my impression was that the two freebie salsas alongside the chips should be treated like a traffic signal: Go with the smooth, green blend of tomatillo, avocado, onion, jalapeño, and cilantro; stop at the watery red tomato-based salsa with a raw garlic taste. On a subsequent visit, the red was more balanced, but even better are the dips prepared fresh-to-order behind a "guacamole bar" in the rear of the room.

Five varieties of guacamole are offered, each mashed and served in a molcajete — a Mexican mortar and pestle. One guac is infused with roasted garlic and basil, another with chipotle, but the waitstaff really pushes the "Elvis": avocado with lime, garlic, and nubby bits of Benton's bacon — a hickory-smoked country pig from Presley's Tennessee that is smokier than most (perhaps not surprisingly, for it comes from the Smoky Mountains). Fried plantain chips rise from the bowl, but that's just a play on Elvis's banana/bacon groove; corn chips go better. Truthfully, we preferred La Verdad, which is like Elvis without the glitter — ripe, creamy avocado mashed to a chunky state with bits of onion and tomato and hints of lime and cilantro. It's pretty much a perfect guacamole.

Bacon lovers who spurn Benton's in the guac can find it in the pasilla-rubbed slices in the bacon tacos, amid bacon nachos, and sandwiched between an English muffin and poached egg (with chipotle hollandaise) in Scorpion's eggs Benedict. The last item is offered with a few other à la carte selections such as huevos rancheros and tequila-strawberry French toast during Saturday and Sunday brunch.

In Mexico, salsas often involve a complex blending and balancing of chilies cooked in different manners. Scorpion's pair of offerings involves little more than diced tomatoes tossed with some other stuff, but they go well with chips. The jaiba salsa is $10, which seems pricey for a dip, but at least it contains backfin crab meat. The $7 borracha (drunk) salsa brought a petite serving of cleanly diced tomato and pineapple laced with mint, hardly dotted with jalapeño and supposedly touched with tequila — tasty, but the flavors needed to meld more, and for the same money you can get two tacos (and on $1 Taco Tuesdays... well, you get what I'm saying).

Bocaditos, or "bar snacks and appetizers," include meatballs in chipotle sauce; chile relleno with Maytag blue cheese and mole sauce; nachos; quesadillas; and grilled corn on the cob brought to the table steaming-hot, cut off the cob by the waiter, and mixed with queso cotija, cream, chili, and lime. I don't know about this as a bar snack, but you can't ask for a tastier vegetable side dish.

Nachos, on the other hand, are the ideal bite to pair with a cold beer or any one of the fresh fruit-based cocktails on a drink list designed by Christian Sanders (whom GQ tabbed America's "next bartending hero"). The nachos come high rather than wide, as in multiple layers of chips, beans, Monterey Jack and Oaxacan cheeses, and piquant pico de gallo piled into a cast-iron pan of relatively small circumference. Chicken, steak, and that Tennessee bacon are optional additions. Quesadillas contain three melted cheeses and similar garnishing options.

Lime-marinated snapper, the base for one of three ceviches, is jazzed with tomato, onion, corn, and pickled carrots, while the ahi tuna rendition is laced with yellow watermelon, serrano peppers, honey, red onion, and cilantro. Actually, the latter version featured too much regular red watermelon; it, along with the honey, overwhelmed the tuna and undermined the very notion of ceviche. We weren't crazy about our cheese enchilada either, a Chihuahua/Monterey Jack blend wrapped in two corn tortillas and baked with a potent, chili-powder-heavy mole rojo sauce that suffocated the mild cheese flavors.

Just four entrées are listed on the menu. Each is accompanied by fresh, nicely spiced Mexican rice and smoky, bacon-tinged "charro" beans that on one occasion were saddled with way too much cumin (and I like cumin). An evidently well-marinated carne asada (grilled skirt steak) came topped with salsa ranchera and imbued with a beautiful charred flavor. Puerco pibil — the Yucatecan slow-cooked, banana-leaf-wrapped, achiote-rubbed, sour-orange-infused shredded pork shoulder — was heavier than those we've tried in the Yucatan and imparted less citrus impact. Grilled half-chicken and Veracruzan red snapper constitute the other two main courses.

Hearty appetites will be satisfied via the entrées, and at $17 to $20, the prices aren't bad. Yet Scorpion works much better as a taqueria than a restaurant. The nine taco variations are each distinctively flavorful and the soft, thick, homemade tortilla shells appropriately greased from the griddle. Their downscale, authentic nature is appealing, although for $3.50 per taco, the fillings should be less parsimonious. The pasilla-rubbed Benton's bacon taco, with pickled onion and chipotle cream, brings a spicy, salty bite. Make that two bites, which is about what it takes to consume one of them. And consume we did, enjoying a barbecue chicken with pickled radish, a moderately hot cascabel chili-glazed shrimp with onion and cilantro, a more piquant barbecue tilapia with napa slaw and rémoulade, and a sweet al pastor of roast pork, pineapple, and habanero-heated pico de gallo. A platter of any three tacos with rice and beans is $17.

The tequila list is more extensive than the food menu, which probably shouldn't surprise at a South Beach venue with "Tequila Bar" in its moniker. On hand are more than 120 blue agave spirits, some aged in oak barrels, some in Bordeaux wine barrels, many of the less exotic ones available in margaritas — no frozen wussy stuff here, just the classic tart mix of tequila, Cointreau, and lime juice.

Dense, creamy flan is a best bet among the handful of simply assembled desserts — ice cream in a chocolate-dipped waffle-tortilla cone, fried plantain rolled in cinnamon, and so forth. All will satisfy a sweet tooth and are relative bargains at $4 to $6. If a few other prices on the menu don't seem as appealing, you can take advantage of various drink and food specials, which include cut-rate deals on tacos, nachos, quesadillas, and margaritas.

El Scorpion doesn't take itself too seriously and as such is a cool joint to relax and let your hair down. Stick with the guac, tacos, nachos, and tequila (or beer), and you'll have a good time.

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