Mariachi and Chips
It was on the drive to Tequila Sunrise that one of my dinner guests inquired as to what sort of place we were headed. "Mexican," I replied, though it turned out she had already surmised that. I really didn't know any more, other than having been told by someone who had passed by the Ponce de Leon and Eighth Street location that it looked nice from the outside. "Let's just pray there's no mariachi band," I said. A short time later, while passing through the attractive outdoor dining patio that fronts the restaurant, we noticed men in mariachi garb milling about; suddenly I felt I knew just what sort of place this was.
The décor, quintessential sanitized south of the border, reinforced my mariachi-based perception that this would be one of those formulaic American-Mexican establishments. One of two indoor dining rooms is dominated by a large, cartoonish green-and-red version of the circular Mayan calendar. The other is more subdued, with terra-cotta-color walls, maple and oak woods, and hanging plants highlighted by kelly-green lights. White linen tablecloths and formally dressed waiters lend an upscale grace to the space, which is pretty much pleasing to the eye. There's also a separate lounge, with a bar in the center and tables for two skirting the walls.
The cuisine is, in fact, gringo-ized, though not to the extent of those chips-and-salsa franchises. Tequila Sunrise serves chips and salsa as well, the latter way too sweet but the thin, crisp chips quite good. Unfortunately after briskly finishing the basket, we were never offered a refill. It's not that the waiters were being stingy but, as we would learn as the evening progressed, it was just one of many things (like empty water glasses and uncleared dishes) they simply overlooked.
We started off with an assorted appetizer platter for two ($17) that was centered by a mound of fresh guacamole. Although reasonably green in color, someone at the table commented that it "tasted too much of the avocado's overripe brown part." This seemed a somewhat obscure and questionable criticism, but it gained credence when a later dish came dressed with brown-splotched wedges of the fruit. Surrounding the guacamole: slices of lightly grilled chorizo; half-inch cubes of moist, savory pork butt (carnitas); a trio of tortilla turnovers filled with melted cheese (quesadillas); three bean-and-cheese nacho triangles; and shredded-beef chimichangas enfolded by soft tortillas that really should have been crisply fried.
Another mixed platter, the fajita combo ($19), sizzled with strips of titillatingly marinated steak and chicken breast, three plump jumbo shrimp, and sautéed green peppers, onions, and mushrooms. A basket of warm, homemade-tasting flour tortillas, and a plate of guacamole, sour cream, shredded lettuce, and pico de gallo (finely minced tomato, onion, and cilantro) afforded us the fun of mixing, matching, and munching away. Fajitas are listed with the entrées, under "house specialties," but we split ours three ways as an appetizer, which worked just fine.
Ceviche comes stocked with either red snapper, scallops, octopus, or lobster (eight dollars). We were lured by the last. The bite-size pieces of lobster were a bit chewy, but tender enough to have succeeded if the lime and cilantro marinade were less sugary. If I had it to do over again, I'd go with the starter of poached octopus and potatoes in olive oil, sea salt, and paprika (eight dollars). Other appetizers: chilled oysters, shrimp cocktail (both eight dollars), and lemon-lime marinated flank steak with button mushrooms (nine dollars).
A parsley- and garlic-imbued medley of scallops, squid, mussels, shrimp, and half a Florida lobster tail, each ingredient cooked to its proper point of tenderness, made up a flawless "Spanish seafood stew" ($21). Steamy, buttery white rice on the side was good too, much tastier than the insipid "Mexican" rice that, with equally uninspired refried beans, accompanies combo-platter favorites such as burritos, tacos, chimichangas, and enchiladas de mole ($12), two corn tortillas wrapped around shredded chicken. The thick, black mole was richly seasoned and properly piquant, but, again, sweeter than it needed to be. The chicken was drier than it needed to be, the clumpy sauce doing little in the way of moistening.
We didn't try camarones al ajillo ($17), which is simply shrimp sautéed in garlic and olive oil, but I would recommend it based on the first-rate way this crustacean was handled in the fajitas and seafood stew. I can also endorse the grilled duck confit, though I'd be more enthusiastic if the kitchen had executed it like the menu implied. The duck wasn't grilled, and though it might have been cooked in duck fat (part of the confit requisite), it certainly wasn't marinated in the complex mix of traditional confit seasonings. That's all right, because the breast and leg were greaselessly delicious, and came with a refreshing cilantro-potato purée. What wasn't all right was the "Mediterranean fig and ancho chili salsa." What intrigued me about the dish in the first place, the salsa, turned out to be a pedestrian brown sauce based on beef, not duck stock, which made for a clumsy complement. Roasted salmon with asparagus and cilantro sauce ($17), veal chop in amontillado sherry sauce ($20), and rack of lamb with ancho chili (or so they say) salsa ($21), are a few of the other main-course offerings. The prices here, as you may note, are more than fair.
Early in the evening, before the sun sets on Sunrise, service is polite, professional, and efficient. On a Friday-night visit, with most of the 210 seats filled, that efficiency evaporated as quickly as steam over a hot tortilla. Actually it was the servers themselves who disappeared, our eviscerated appetizers sitting in front of us for so long that shortly after the busperson finally cleared the plates, our waiter returned and passed out dessert menus; I told him politely that we'd prefer waiting until after dinner. He took back the menus, apologized, and fled, our entrées not appearing for another ten minutes. Then another long wait before those plates were cleared, and more time still before our waiter made it back to us, again, with dessert menus. We chose the traditional flan ($4.50), goat milk-filled crêpes topped with nuts ($5.25), and fried ice cream ($5.50), but an additional ten minutes passed before he came for our order, at which point we were out of patience and asked for the check.
As for that mariachi band, it was far better than any that had ever before pestered me in a Mexican restaurant: the singer strong of voice, the trumpeter a virtual Al Hirt. They were almost good enough to make me stop mocking mariachis forever. Of course I would rather have spent the following day dwelling on how swell the food was, instead of trying to get "Vaya Condios" out of my head, but that's just not the sort of place this is.
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