Open with a Pair

With Thanksgiving Day - and all the eating that it entails - looming large, the last thing my dining consort and I wanted was a huge meal. So we headed to a couple of new eateries with scaled-down menus but, as it turned out, not scaled-down calories.

Our first stop was Johnny Rockets in the Dadeland Mall. The place is a hoot, and the burgers sublime. This chain (based in California) operates in the Fifties-diner mode, with period decor consisting of gleaming red vinyl, bright stainless steel, and Seeburg Wall-o-matic jukeboxes (a nickel per play) strategically placed along the counter in the main room. An adjacent room contains a few booths for larger groups.

"Cooked in sight, must be right," reads a quaint sign, referring to the open grill in the counter area. I was amused to see that the young cooks, even the guys, wear hair nets, the bane of my carhop days in Ohio, where such head gear was mandatory for all food workers. The nets played a rather large role in my adolescent angst: I lived in daily terror that some of the cool kids from my high school would cruise into the Big Boy and see me. It was even more amusing to watch some of the young waiters and waitresses at Johnny Rockets wearing their pisscutters (as servicemen used to call the garrison caps favored by soda jerks) with pride, and even strutting about the place in their retro garb of chinos and white, long-sleeve shirts.

The menu is succinct: burgers, cheeseburgers, french fries, BLTs, peanut-butter-and-jelly and tuna-salad sandwiches, milk shakes, malts, Cokes, coffee. Soft drinks are served in real glass glasses; the waitress poured ketchup for our fries onto a small paper plate; the chocolate malt my companion ordered came with the extra in the stainless-steel mixing cup; and best of all, the food is real. When you sink your teeth into a burger, the aroma and taste of top-grade ground beef will flood your senses and make you wonder what you ever saw in the cardboard-clad fast-food versions. And at $3.35 apiece, these burgers won't set you back substantially more than the take-out type. The fries were mediocre, although obviously cooked in vegetable oil rather than lard and so sure to please the cholesterol police. On the other hand, there was nothing mediocre about my companion's delicious malt, which was almost too thick and frosty to drink.

Occasionally the staff members, looking as if they stepped out of their parents' high school yearbooks, broke into song. Seems these kids have worked out routines to many of the tunes on the Wall-o-matic. Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire.

A few nights later, we checked out of the Fifties and into another era at Tyrannosaurus Mex. Formerly Grove Calloway's, the Grand Avenue sports bar is under new ownership and now offers Tex-Mex with the touchdowns.

The place is also a little more self-contained than in its previous life - tent ceilings and a tall mural of mountains separate the bar from the dining area, which is completely enclosed with wood and glass. This configuration provides diners with a respite from the noisy bar and yet gives patrons in both places plenty of TV sets on which to view ball games. A big dinosaur in a tropical hat stands near the entrance, and while the dino is a dramatic addition, the spirit remains the same as before - raucous. On the Monday night we were there, for example, folks were asked to declare their allegiance to either the Dolphins or Bills, their wrists were stamped accordingly, and tequila-and-7-Up shooters were presented gratis each time one's team scored. Shooters were delivered popper style - the bartender sharply knocked the shot glass on the bar, causing the contents to fizz and the recipient to drink very quickly.

Before the game (and the shots) got under way, we sampled the food at T-Mex, as the efficient staff affectionately calls the restaurant. Appetizers included the usual suspects: guacamole, Buffalo (sorry, Dol-fans) wings, quesadillas, and nachos, but we chose a house specialty called Mexican firecrackers. For $3.95 we got a half-dozen fresh jalapenos stuffed with cheese, rolled in a coating, and fried until they were crisp.

A waiter had delivered salsa and chips as soon as we sat down, and although the salsa was liberally spiked with jalapenos, both my companion and I were quite unprepared for the fire power of these 'crackers. Inside the nicely browned outer shell were small, plump, bell-shape hot peppers filled with warm cheddar cheese. Unfortunately we couldn't taste the cheese at all because the peppers were incendiary, in no small part due to the fact that some of the seeds and veins, the hottest parts of the pepper plant, had not been removed.

We skipped over the list of salads and sandwiches - which includes taco salad, grilled chicken sandwich, cheeseburger, and fish sandwich, all priced around $6.95 - and headed for the specialty plates. Nothing terribly ambitious here but the restaurant features Tex-Mex staples such as chicken, beef, shrimp, or combination fajitas, barbecue pork ribs, grilled fish of the day, enchiladas, carne asada, and chimichangas. Prices range from $6.95 for the enchiladas, which can be filled with chicken, beef, or cheese, to $10.95 for the ribs, shrimp fajitas, and carne asada.

Our meals drew mixed reviews. My companion adored his carne asada. The tender beef had been marinated in a tangy, smoky-tasting mixture, and was topped with perfectly cooked, slightly crunchy onions. The refried beans served with both our meals were somewhat bland, but the moist yellow rice had a delicious hint of saffron.

I tried a chimichanga, which was described as a crisp flour tortilla packed with chicken, cheese, and beans and topped with sour cream and guacamole. While the tortilla was soggy instead of crisp, the rest of the ingredients were present as advertised in great abundance. Too great an abundance, in fact, because I had to pick the chicken out from under its many-layered coat of beans and cheese in order to taste it. What I managed to fish out tasted great, but on my next visit I, too, would order the carne asada or the fajitas - less work to eat and less of a mess.

My companion was disappointed that no Texas beers were available and the only Mexican beers offered were Dos Equis and Corona. Fortunately the beers were served extremely cold (a welcome antidote to the heat of the firecrackers). I ordered a "killer margarita," touted by the menu as "the drink that made us famous." The seven-dollar cocktail contains Sauza Conmemorativo tequila, Grand Marnier, and Cointreau, and although the drink was properly salted around the rim of the glass, the mixture itself was lukewarm. I didn't taste much Sauza because the too-sweet Grand Marnier overwhelmed the rest of the drink, which tasted like a lime soda that used to be made in my hometown - the label was Norka (Akron spelled backward) and I think they got the water for their beverages from the Cuyahoga River, which at that time was the only river in the nation that could catch fire. I fared much better after our meal when I ordered a frozen margarita at the bar. This one had plenty of tequila and wasn't nearly as sickly sweet.

Now in Miami you can get great balls of fire in two forms (at least!): musically at Johnny Rockets, or gastronomically at Tyrannosaurus Mex. When you tire of leftover turkey, goodness, gracious, give 'em a try.

at Dadeland Mall, 7535 N Kendall Dr, 663-8864. Hours: Sunday - Thursday from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

3000 Grand Ave, Coconut Grove, 441-2100. Hours: Sunday - Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 a.m; Friday and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 4:00 a.m.


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