I don't believe I'm sticking my neck too far into the guillotine by contending that children don't often make good restaurant critics. Their priorities aren't culinary, and their diet reflects that. The ritualized service and setting are too constricting. They are too easy to please in some ways, impossible in others. And yet it was thanks to Bryce Olds, a ten-year-old child, that I first heard of Paquito's, a popular Mexican restaurant in North Miami Beach -- and just for that I'm tempted to review the conventional wisdom regarding kids and cassoulet. Which is not to say that Bryce, the son of a dear friend and sometime tennis partner, Bruce, is necessarily the last word on fine dining; as with any normal youngster, his temperature rises on the mound pitching little league games or blasting passing shots on the tennis court more frequently than at the prospect of a perfectly executed Chateaubriand.
But even a kid can heap praise on a Mexican restaurant and have his confidence in it echoed by critical factions. In an age when Mexico's cuisine is fodder for speculative culturemongery, Paquito's restores our faith in the principle of traditional ingredients expertly applied. The atmosphere of this neighborhood eatery is both modest and proportionate.
I've never been a fan of strolling -- and blaring -- mariachi bands whose purpose, it seems to me, is to collect money for an assault on your inner ear. Paquito's confines the live music to a pair of ranchero-style strolling guitarists wearing sombreros -- as you'd expect, their repertoire takes them from "La Cucaracha" (English or Spanish lyrics) onward. Couples seem to come to Paquito's as a romantic prelude to the evening, and all appeared to be delighted by the finger-picking duo's collection of serenades from the old country. The decor is discreet: bird models rest on perches hung from the ceiling; there's a toucan to the right of the bar, a cockatoo facing one window, two miniature parrots off to one side, and so on.
Prior to any mention of the kitchen, a word about margaritas, the great national cocktail of Mexico: I can't ever have enough of them, frozen or on the rocks, with or without salt. Paquito's margaritas ($3 for a single, $14.95 for a pitcher) are better if you go with the unfrozen variety, which was as sweet as a lollipop and didn't evince much of the tequila, Triple Sec, and lime flavorings that go into the drink. The salt around the rim of the glass was successfully handled.
It may come as a disappointment to connoisseurs of ceviche that Paquito's employs grouper rather than a sturdier seafarer such as kingfish or St. Peter. But here you can sample two different versions of that Central- and South-American marinade, with fish ($6.25) or shrimp ($6.75). Ideally, the seafood in this appetizer needs to rest a good long time in lime juice in order to tenderize and take in all the flavors, including tomato, jalapeno peppers, onion, and cilantro. Paquito's gives the impression that Speedy Gonzales whipped it up faster than the Road Runner could beep -- but at least the temperature was appropriately cool.
Also disappointing was the guacamole dip ($4.75) for the simple reason -- and here I let go of any pretense of objectivity -- that mashed avocados, as the menu suggests and which I love, are infinitely superior in texture to the characterless puree Paquito's delivers. Nonetheless, there is a lion's share of nachos (ranging from $4.75 to $6.95) that steer any patron toward all-out gluttony. I happily downed the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink "Paquito's Nachos," corn tortilla chips covered with refried beans, Mexican chorizo, guacamole, sour cream, molten cheese, and jalapeno rings, and must report on the almost miraculous degree to which this rich appetizer -- which would be a cardiac nightmare elsewhere -- avoids greasy residue. Other starters of note include queso al plato ($4.25), melted cheeses served with flour tortillas, quesadilla ($4.25), and botana mixta ($7.50), an excellent mixed platter including one beef taco, one quesadilla, one sope, nachos, and guacamole.
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Portions mount like an Aztec temple at Paquito's, and where Mexican food is concerned, that's always good news. And yet, despite the marvelously complex mole ploblano sauce on a chicken breast ($11.50), derived from chiles, spices, nuts, and bitter chocolate and one of Mexico's culinary coups for centuries, the dish was unsatisfactory because the chicken was, as we Cubanos like to say, una suela de zapato -- roughly translated, it means "tougher than the heel on an old shoe." Each entree comes with a generous helping of cheese-covered beans, mixed vegetable rice, and lettuce and tomato. Of Paquito's fajitas ($13.95), they claim to be "the best in town." I wouldn't quite go that far, but the variety -- beef, chicken, and pork -- is something undoubtedly praiseworthy. Other main courses I sampled and can recommend are the chicken-and-cheese enchiladas suizas ($8.95) and a first-rate pescado a la veracruzana ($11.50), grouper fillet marinated in garlic and served with a spicy tomato-and-caper sauce. Desserts are run-of-the-mill, but there is one outstanding exception.
In his marvelous recipe compendium, Mark Miller, the brilliantly innovative chef of the famous Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, deems cajeta, the Mexican caramel made from goat's milk, "less sickly than the average caramel, and possesses a flavor and sense of the outdoors that is part of the aesthetic of Southwestern cooking." Paquito's finishes the trip to the great revolutionary country on a high -- and I daresay sweet -- note. The crepas de cajeta ($3.50) are the best I've tasted in a very long while, brought piping hot to your table, and brimming with "outdoor" taste. Having a childish tolerance for sugar helps in enjoying this (and where sweets are concerned, a ten-year-old child is an adult to me). These crepes are simply magnificent.
So, in sum, a qualified success.
PAQUITO'S 16295 Biscayne Boulevard, North Miami Beach; 947-5027. Open Monday -- Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday from 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Saturday from 4 p.m. to midnight, and Sunday from 4 to 10 p.m.