Formula for Fine Food

It's all Starbucks' fault.

Coffee used to be the equivalent of regular leaded. It was cheap, strong, and uncomplicated; you poured it in your tank, revved up your motor, and were good to go. Then some boy genius got his fancy knickers in a twist and all of a sudden we were paying five bucks for decaf Frapuccino with peppermint syrup and ruby-red sprinkles. Then the boy genius becomes a corporate titan who wipes his butt with hundred-dollar bills and Starbucks is as ubiquitous as dirt.

Coffee, a "gourmet" lifestyle accouterment. Who knew?


Mari-Nalli Gourmet Quesadillas

2271 Ponce de Leon Blvd, Coral Gables; 305-648-0688.

Open Monday through Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

Well, we all do now. The shotgun marriage of blue collar and white tablecloth that Starbucks consummated has spread across America's culinary landscape like a particularly virulent STD. In the process, it has turned the revolutionary into a formula. Take a simple, widely popular food item — pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, crêpes, tacos — and lay on the gourmet cachet. Lavish it with upscale ingredients and multiculti adornments; then dish it in a space that replicates the slick design of the modern big-city restaurant. And price it low enough to be affordable to the struggling foodie masses yet high enough to afford its owners a lifetime supply of folding green toilet paper.

The trick in all of this is balancing upscale pretensions with what's actually coming out of the kitchen.

Cue Mari-Nalli. This weeks-old Coral Gables purveyor of "gourmet quesadillas" is a winning example of the neo-Starbuckian formula done right. The space is cool — earth-tone browns, golds, and rusty reds; tile and hardwood flooring; space-age light fixtures; and a nifty recessed ceiling dome painted to look like the South Florida sky. There's an undulating counter where salads and desserts reside behind glass, where you also order your food and then grab a table to wait for it to be delivered.

The prices are right, and though the portions might not seem large, Mari-Nalli's quesadillas are surprisingly filling. They come in three sizes: a quarter of a ten-inch flour tortilla ("tapas"), half a tortilla ("popular"), and one-and-a-half tortillas ("grande" — hello, Starbucks). But the best part is that they're all pretty tasty, made with fresh ingredients, and well priced. If there's any quibble, it's that the bottom halves of the quesadillas sometimes come out of the turbo-blaster convection oven undercooked and gummy. Also the potato salad and coleslaw are bland, bland, bland.

Other than that, there's not much to complain about. A side of corn-and-carrot-studded rice and black beans is remarkably flavorful; housemade salsas taste freshly made and can be hot enough to peel the paint off of your car. Of the several (premade) salads, the Greek is way above typical fast-food standards, with lots of crisp romaine, tomatoes, olives, cucumber, and feta in a sweet-tart balsamic vinaigrette.

Of the quesadillas, only the jerk shrimp (no discernible jerk flavor) and veggie-Med (slightly off-tasting goat cheese) were disappointments. The rest were top-drawer. Perhaps the best was the chicken Beijing, with its tangy peanut sauce, crunchy cabbage and carrots, and bean sprouts; or maybe the Reuben, with its tender corned beef, sauerkraut, and zippy Thousand Island dressing; or perhaps the lemony, rosemary-perfumed chicken with zucchini and Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses.

Or it could be the classy Parisian — Brie, ham, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh basil. Or the breakfast quesadilla, featuring scrambled eggs with chilies, corn, and Manchego; or Chicken Itza, with anchiote-marinated chicken, pickled red onions, black beans, corn, and jack cheese.

Hold that Frapuccino. I'll have a quesadilla instead.


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