Tuesday, June 23, 1998

Mexican that sings

Posted on Tue, Jun 23, 1998 at 4:00 AM

There are far more nuances to Mexican cuisine than many people realize. Here in Central Florida, in particular, we're so removed from the border that the term "Mexican food" generally means basic chimichangas, burritos, tacos and enchiladas.

You'll find all of those fine standards at Margarita's Grill, a new arrival at Chickasaw Trail and Lake Underhill Road. But you'll also discover a sophisticated Central Mexican spin on the menu, thanks to a trio of partners from Mexico City. We're talking sweet mahi-mahi fillets blackened with crushed chili spices, sizzling sirloin steaks served with corn-dough tamales and a tangy shot of green tomatillo sauce, and much more. It's these kinds of combinations, along with skilled preparation, presentation and service, that make this pleasant restaurant in developing east Orlando a real find.

On two lunch visits, we sampled a bit of everything. One favorite was sopa tortilla ($2.50), a bright-red chicken-tomato soup served almost scalding hot, which played up its spicy flavors to the hilt. Taken one sip at a time, the broth revealed an intriguing tapestry of spices that teased the nostrils as well as the taste buds. It was swimming with ribbons of fresh fried tortillas, still crispy, and topped with avocado and melted cheese.

Even something as standard as nachos ($5.95) took on superior tones. Delicately pale tortilla chips were layered with strategically placed pockets of shredded beef, melted cheese, sour cream and assorted peppers. It was lovely and inviting.

Mole poblano ($8.50) made a vivid impression, featuring half of a chicken simmered in a seductive combination of 20 Mexican spices, including the defining chocolate. This deep, dark, sweet sauce was simply outstanding, dusted with a trail of sesame seeds.

We also gave the flautas ($6.50) a whirl and found everything in order. Crunchy little taco tubes were rolled up with spicy minced beef and shredded chicken, for a sweet and smoky taste anchored by scoops of guacamole, refried beans and spicy rice.

For dessert, crepas con cajeta ($2.95) featured spongy pancakes drenched in caramel sauce, topped with almonds and vanilla-bean ice cream. And someone here definitely knows how to brew a satisfying cup of traditional Mexican coffee ($1.25), zipped up with cinnamon and brown sugar -- almost dessert in itself.

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