Faux SoBo

Cancun Grill is everything that's wrong with Mexican cuisine in South Florida.

Most Mexican restaurants in these parts are about many things — cheap prices, expensive margaritas, quick service, raucous entertainment, faux SoBo (south of the border) ambiance. Rarely are they about the food. What sets Cancun Grill apart is a microscopic focus on detail and flawless execution of every other aspect of what we'll grandly call the "dining experience."

The Deco-esque exterior of this huge, noisy, frighteningly popular Miami Lakes restaurant, dabbed with various cool candy tones, could be the backdrop for a rerun of Miami Vice. Inside, though the cavernous dining room is overrun with hungry hordes, there's hardly a hair out of place: not a napkin on the floor, not a table uncleared for more than a minute, nor a single annoyed customer clamoring for attention.


Cancun Grill

15406 NW 77th Ct, Miami Lakes; 305-826-8571. Open Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

Before your butt even settles into the chair, a black-clad waiter is at your side, taking a drink order. A heartbeat later beverages materialize, but not before another server has left behind a basket of chips and tiny saucer of salsa. Finish those, and more will be delivered — unbidden — only slightly less quickly than the speed of light. The rest of your food will arrive with similar alacrity. And don't forget the mariachis, four blue-uniformed gentlemen who serenade from table to table.

On the whole, it's a damn impressive display. Watching Cancun Grill operate at full throttle calls to mind a complex, sophisticated, well-oiled machine tended by a small army of smart, hard-working operators that — with remorseless efficiency — churns out thousands of identical, perfectly formed ... cow pies.

Ah, yes. The cow pies.

One could begin with the margaritas, served in goblets large enough to swim laps in but so light on alcohol that rapid consumption of two produces no more buzz than reading the label on a tequila bottle. And the powdered mix congealed at the bottom of the glass is less than appealing.

On the other hand, it's a lot more appealing than the salsa, which is simply vile. The few pathetic sprigs of cilantro and chunks of underripe tomato floating in the watery, canned-tasting concoction only add insult to misery. If you must, use the thin, modestly greasy chips to scoop up a side order of guacamole, which, although cold and tasteless, at least is made with real avocados.

Fajitas, naturally a popular item, are marginally satisfying; the skirt steak (one of several protein options), though cooked well past medium-rare, is still juicy, with lots of grilled onions, more tasteless guacamole, dried-out tortillas, and salsa of actual chopped tomatoes that still tastes as authentically Mexican as a Big Mac. Enchiladas suizas, topped with tomatillo sauce, cheese, and sour cream, are similarly palatable, even if the shredded chicken inside is as dry as the fajitas' tortillas.

Chicken mole is a disaster — a thin slab of rock-hard breast immersed in a sauce so insipid and one-dimensional it strips the "olé" from "mole" with a single bite. As bad as that is, camarones rancheros are even worse — finger-size shrimp crowned with a scum of molten cheese and embedded in a "sauce" that could have been tomato purée poured straight from the can onto a bed of flabby bell peppers, onions, and mushrooms.

If you want to know what's wrong with South Florida's Mexican cuisine, it's on your plate at Cancun Grill.

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