Up ahead we saw the revolving spotlights -- the kind that cast wasted energy into the night sky in honor of a nightclub opening or a movie premiere -- almost immediately after we turned left on Ponce de Leon Boulevard from Miracle Mile in Coral Gables.
"Ohmygod," my husband groaned. "Please don't tell me those lights are in front of the restaurant. What's it called again: Hard Rock Tijuana?"
"Planeta Mexico," I told him for the umpteenth time.
I couldn't imagine why the name was so hard for him to remember. The riff on Planet Hollywood seemed memorably obvious to me. More likely he was doing a bit of selective forgetting, a convenience he sometimes indulges in. At least he didn't unconsciously get lost this time, although I had to coax his foot back onto the accelerator after he braked in reaction to the dervishlike spotlights.
His reluctance to check out Planeta Mexico didn't surprise me. While we don't go out of our way to bash chain restaurants, neither of us really cares for them. Sure, we occasionally show up at a T.G.I Fridays (two-for-one happy hour and a Buffalo wing special!), but we're loath to sup in a place that really turns our stomachs, like say, Planet Hollywood. Hard enough to eat canned crap under ordinary circumstances; even worse with Ah-nauld's big mug hanging over you. For the record, Planeta Mexico, which opened a few months ago, is not part of a chain, but the restaurant's identification with the tourist traps known as Planet Hollywood had every possibility of putting poor hubby off his feed.
So I was relieved to discover that the spotlights had nothing to do with Planeta Mexico; instead the tractor beams were parked blocks away from our destination in the back of a pickup, which offered their use for an hourly rate -- they advertised only themselves. Good. I thought Planeta Mexico deserved a chance, and I didn't want to go into the place with a negative attitude.
But all generosity of spirit evaporated within a matter of moments during each of my visits as a result of the restaurant's rude, untrained staff. One evening we were abandoned in the process of being seated when the host recognized friends walking through the door; he rushed over to greet them, and we stood for five minutes before finally being led to a table by a hostess. At lunch a few days later I questioned a server about the kind of cheese used in the "ole fondue" appetizer. Sitting in a pool of melted butter, the lumpy substance -- flecked with minced onions, peppers, tomatoes, and jalapenos -- reminded me of scraped-off pizza topping that had been formed into an unappetizing ball. (We discovered the same cheese lining the bottom of a bowl of baked tortilla soup, which also boasted about a barrel of oil and disintegrating strips of fried corn tortillas.) The waitress shrugged, clueless, then asked suspiciously, "Why do you want to know?"
More troubling, on our first visit, the waiter completely forgot to bring our appetizers, which included guacamole. The avocado dip was supposed to be made tableside, but as a result of his screwup, he brought it from the kitchen a little warmer than room temperature, after he'd served our main courses. He also neglected to bring the "piping hot flour tortillas" that were supposed to accompany a tough and dry carnitas entree; flavored with red pepper salsa, cilantro, and onions, the chunks of pork could have been used to pave a road. Another time, rice and beans, alleged main-course side dishes, failed to materialize.
The staff, kitchen and otherwise, needs to pay attention to details. Gratis and plentiful homemade chips bent rather than snapped. Zingy salsa, admittedly addictive with fresh cilantro and white onions, was frequently slopped over its dish into its saucer. And the same stale chips sabotaged a platter of otherwise tasty chicken nachos, loaded with refried pinto beans, shredded chicken, and cheese. Those beans, however, can be undersalted or oversalted -- inedibly bland one day, capable of dehydrating customers the next.
Returning credit cards would be a good idea too. The first time we dined at Planeta Mexico, my husband signed the necessary credit-card form after we were brought our check, but he never received his card back, a fact we realized a few days later. So we attempted to recover it on a subsequent visit. The hostess brought over a credit card the management had been keeping in the office.
"Is this it?"
We shook our heads.
Minutes later she reappeared with a different one. "How about this?"
I've worked at almost a dozen eateries in my time, and once in a while a customer's credit card does float around. But it's pretty unusual to have a stash of them.
All this is not to say that Planeta Mexico doesn't have a molecule of potential. The place took over the spot where Los Girasoles, an upscale Mexican restaurant, used to do business, and the interior is rustic and pretty. Textured walls are painted in blocks of ocher, aqua, and rose. Arched, wood-beamed ceilings give the restaurant authentic heft. The cotton ticking of the upholstered chairs and banquettes (which have matching pillows) is striped with purple, pink, and aqua, and serapes serve as tablecloths. Adobe floor tiles are interspersed with ceramic sunflowers, a holdover from Los Girasoles (which means sunflowers). Planeta Mexico has added photographs of Mexican film stars, and its logo -- a green silhouette of an Aztec Indian -- is hung all over the place, but these touches don't detract from the overall charm of the place. Even a strolling mariachi wasn't too annoying; not only could he sing well, he could divine which tables didn't want him around (like ours) and left them alone.
As for the menu, most of the items are what Americans consider typical Mexican fare: enchiladas, chimichangas, fajitas. The seafood enchiladas supreme, which featured a tasty light cream sauce spiked with jalapenos, was ruined by fake crabmeat. But the shrimp in the dish were real, plump, and fresh, almost justifying the $16.95 price tag, and we liked them even more in the flautas de camarones, corn tortillas rolled around whole shrimp and deep-fried. An accompanying "green sauce," however, turned out to be a dish of chunky guacamole rather than the tomatillo the menu led us to believe. If you mean guacamole, then say it.
A shredded beef chimichanga was truly delicious, the flour tortilla shell fried to a puffy finish and topped with tangy tomato sauce and melted cheese. Tender and juicy carne asada (grilled skirt steak) was the best thing we tried. Steak fajitas were fragrant strips of marinated flank steak brought sizzling to the table. I advise staying away from the vegetarian fajitas, though; the plate was rife with broccoli, and while I'm a huge fan of that particular vegetable, the dish is really more stir-fry than fajitas.
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The choice between flan and tres leches for dessert was hardly tempting; even Planet Hollywood has a more robust selection. If Planeta Mexico truly aspires to capitalize on chainlike commercialism, then the least it can do is offer fried ice cream.
All generosity of spirit evaporated within a matter of moments as a result of the restaurant's rude, untrained staff.
Planeta Mexico 2700 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables; 305-461-0010. Lunch and dinner daily from noon till 11:00 p.m.
Ole fondue $6.95
Beef chimichangas $13.95
Steak fajitas $14.95
Flautas de camarones $16.95