Mexican to Dine For

La Gloria is, for moviegoers, the most significant Mexican import since Like Water for Chocolate. That's because this new taqueria is located smack-dab in the midst of Coconut Grove's cineplexes, offering a transcendent alternative to mall-land's predictable fare. Mexican restaurants used to be just as predictable, but in recent years eating nuevo Mexican has become like much nonchain dining, as inscrutable as a box of chocolates: You never know what you're going to get until you try one. Why, there's not even any assurance they'll offer salsa and chips. La Gloria, as a matter of fact, doesn't.

Taqueria is the Mexican word for "taco eatery," a simple description that is often misleading. This is a modern and spacious restaurant, with four open dining areas that together seat 200. Mexican floor tiles, forged iron sconces and vases from the town of Valle de Bravo, chairs made of wood and mecate (Mexican rope), indigenous artwork, and brown paper coverings on the tabletops conspire to set a sleek and contemporary south-of-the-border mood.

The moniker taqueria is more accurate when it comes to the food. The menu is divided into seven categories, six of which feature the various forms of appetizer-size snacks that one might find at a Mexican taco stand. The first grouping, though, includes the actual starters, or santojitos, which basically are plain, baked, or fried corn tortillas topped or stuffed with sundry fillings. The sampler platter provides a fine introduction to these dishes, offering tastes of mole, cochinita pibil (a marinated pork dish), taquitos (fried chicken tacos), tingas (chicken with tomato-chipotle sauce), and sopes (thick tortilla with potato and chorizo).

Then again, you could just as easily start things off by selecting from the cheesy-things category (referred to on the menu as "de la parrilla del taco man"), which includes tacos, tostadas, and quesadillas -- again, all tortilla-based. La Gloria's plain tortillas, a basket of which is served steamy hot, are noticeably different from those you'll find at the supermarket. They taste authentic, and really splendid.

These same tortillas are fried and turned into crisp strips for the sopa de tortilla ($4.75), the quintessential Mexican soup. The version here presents a full range of textures and tastes in as simple a manner as possible: a rich tomato and chicken-stock base, cubes of creamy avocado and white cheese, hot chilies, and crunchy corn chips. If only the ceviche Acapulco were kept as basic. Tiny chopped pieces of mahi-mahi were zesty with lime juice and cilantro, but a tomato sauce imbued with an unpleasant, ketchuplike taste ruined it. Ceviche Nayarita was much better; same fish but with carrots and red onions in place of the cloying tomato.

Cactus pads, or nopales, are enjoyed in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Central and South America, but in this nation they remain relatively untasted. Perhaps the mucilaginous texture is deemed too icky for our picky palates, though any country that boasts of okra should be able to stomach a little cactus. Besides, if you double boil the plant, which has the color and some of the flavor of green peppers, the gooey exterior slips away. That's how it's prepared for La Gloria's cactus salad ($7.50), a cocktail glass filled with thin strands of cactus, tomatoes, and onion in a vinegary dressing. Extremely invigorating, and an excellent source of iron and vitamins A and C.

Less captivating was the nopalitos with potato, one of a number of stewlike dishes served in little clay pots (called cazuelas). The tomato sauce possessed a mildly tart and smoky guajillo chili kick, but the spud-and-cactus combo was nevertheless bland, and, yes, a bit slippery. Two of the other cazuelas, chicken mole ($8.25) and cochinita pibil, were excellent. Moles differ throughout Mexico much as curries vary in the East: different 'hoods, different spice mixtures. La Gloria tops its shredded white chicken meat with the most common of these combinations, mole poblano, a Pueblan specialty that includes dried chilies, nuts, seeds, vegetables, spices, lard, and a bit of chocolate. There was nothing common about the flavors, though: complex, multilayered, and perfectly piquant.

Cochinita pibil is traditionally made by wrapping pork in banana leaves and cooking it in an outdoor pit called a pibe. The restaurant version is made in an oven of course, but the meat is still marinated in brick-red achiote and bitter orange juice, then served with pickled red onions on top. My wife and I once spent an evening sitting at a rickety taqueria in Chichen Itza ordering these, one at a time, over and over again until we were stuffed. La Gloria's were less greasy and more expensive, but otherwise remarkably similar to the ones we enjoyed in Mexico.

The four entrees offered are more Americanized, a reasonable concession to native culinary sensibilities. The tenderloin tips with garlic, onions, and tomatoes ($14) tasted just fine, as did the succulent garlic-sauteed red snapper. All main courses come with rice and deliciously creamy, stingily portioned black beans.

La Gloria is well staffed, and the waiters were attentive to our needs. The restaurant has a full liquor license, and they make a decent margarita -- better than their sangria, which was overiced and underliquored. Desserts include a wonderful crepas de cajetas ($6.25), three soft crépes folded around dulce de leche and topped with ice cream made with Mexican vanilla beans. There's also a flan, which, when ordered in any Mexican or Spanish restaurant is not like choosing from an assortment of chocolates: They're all the same, with only the shape varying. This one was rectangular.

Oaxaca, another modern Mexican eatery, opened on South Beach in March. Oaxaca has a bold Indian sound as it rolls from the lips, but it would be nice if the place actually served food from the region that bears its name. Once you accept that this is not Oaxaca, but nuevo Mexico, you'll find the menu interesting enough. While perusing it we munched on warm blue and yellow corn chips and fresh salsa.

Appetizers are generously portioned and well priced (ranging from five to eight dollars). The poblano chili starter (eight dollars), baked in puff pastry and filled with minced, roasted almonds, white cheese, and garlic, could easily feed four. The attendant red pepper sauce with bay leaf, and anise flavor derived from dried avocado leaves, contributed to an intriguing fiesta of tastes: sweet, hot, exotic, and nutty. The blackened tomato sauce that pooled a griddled blue corn polenta and fresh corn torte was also a treat, one that added a spicy counterpoint to the disks of cornmeal and melted cheese. What the torte lacked was some crunch to contrast with the tediously soft textures.

Other dishes lacked not firmness, but ingredients. The minced chicken, melted cheese, and griddled white-flour tortillas were all in place for the chicken quesadillas, but the roasted sunflower seeds and sour cream that the menu promised didn't arrive. Instead a mound of soggy fried spinach took center plate. The ground ancho chilies for our seafood tortilla soup (seven dollars) never came either, though that was no big deal: The fish broth, flecked with cilantro and tomatoes and stocked with shrimp, clams, and calamari, was potent enough without them.

They should have saved some calamari for my main course of fried yellowtail snapper with calamari rice and pine nuts ($16). Alas, no calamari, no pine nuts. The fish, split at the top to create a pocket for stuffing before being fried whole, was filled with yellow rice and numerous baby shrimp. Had the waiter been more forthcoming about the substitution when I ordered, I would have foregone the fish entirely, believing as I do that the only appropriate place for these teeny, tasteless crustaceans are in school-cafeteria shrimp salads.

Nothing was missing from the other entree, chicken enchiladas with mole poblano. Enchilada comes from the Spanish verb enchilar, "to cover in chilies," and the two fresh corn tortillas rolled around minced chicken meat were just that: smothered in melted white cheese and a tasty, but not exceptional, mole. Yellow rice and pinto beans on the plate completed the whole enchilada.

Oaxaca's decorative sensibilities are similar to La Gloria's, but the place is much smaller: The comfortable padded leather and iron chairs seat only 26. The room has clean, minimalist lines, blond wood-framed mirrors, copper and Formica tables, and a bar that serves beer and wine -- no liquor license yet. Just as I wish I'd been told about the shrimp-for-calamari swap, the woman at the table next to us should have been informed that her margarita would be made with white wine before they served her the drink (a margarita without tequila is, of course, no margarita at all). The room was only half full during our visits, yet many of the tables surrounding us were subjected to an array of mixups: forgotten appetizers, dinners taken to the wrong table, and so on. Although our own meals were delivered without incident, the waiters didn't have a clue as to who ordered what.

Some problems in the back of the house as well. I appreciate that Oaxaca makes all its food to order, but the lapses between courses run extremely long. It's unfortunate, but not unusual, that newly opened restaurants experience the sort of glitches afflicting Oaxaca. Still the food is fresh and ambitious, and the owners seem earnest in their desire to cater to neighborhood residents. If they're able to tighten the numerous loose screws, this could become a hip local spot to dine. For the time being, choose wisely, exhibit patience, and be wary of the desserts: The cajeta crepes (six dollars) were caramelized on the bottom to a black inedibility (though the blueberry and chipotle chili ice cream that came with them was superbly spicy); and the torta chabela, a wedding cake with layers of peaches, almonds, whipped cream, and meringue, was mostly meringue -- the type that tastes like hardened cotton candy. The latter sweet was inspired by Like Water for Chocolate. Skip the cake and rent the movie.

La Gloria
2957 Florida Ave, Coconut Grove; 305-448-9505.
Open Sunday through Thursday 5:00 to 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 2:00 a.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday.

Tortilla soup

Cactus strip salad

Chicken mole

Mexican-style tenderloin tips

Crepas de cajetas

1346 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-604-0110.
Open Tuesday through Sunday 6:00 to 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday to midnight.

Seafood tortilla soup

Poblano chili in puff pastry

Whole fried yellowtail snapper

Cajeta crepes



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