Thursday, September 1, 2005

MEXICAN STANDOFF

Posted on Thu, Sep 1, 2005 at 4:00 AM

One of my first international culinary trysts was with Mexican food. In Los Angeles, where I grew up, the lure of a taco stand was never farther away than a nearby side street. Even now, on cool, dry days when the sun is shining, I still crave the simplicity of marinated meat barely wrapped in the skin of a soft corn tortilla – eaten while standing, of course.

It took me years of testing and trying to discover this same joy in Florida and build up a cache of Mexican places I frequent. When I hear of a new Mexican place, I can't resist checking it out for myself – especially when the owners are Mexican and have a track record, as with Las Margaritas on Semoran Boulevard (aka State Road 436). It was opened in April by Javier Martinez, a man originally from Guadalajara who migrated to the United States at age 17. Although he never worked in the restaurant biz back in Mexico, he was sucked into the chaos of restaurant life after moving here, starting as a dishwasher and working his way up. He now owns three restaurants, two in Port St. Lucie and this new location. How could you not appreciate this man's dedication and hard work?

But how is the food? Most of it was OK – not as good as I wanted it to be and not quite good enough to live up to my favorite haunts. Still, if you're in the area, it's well worth a try.

This saffron-colored cottage is inviting on this otherwise desultory stretch of 436. With a plethora of neon signs lighting the windows, it reminds me of a colorful piñata about to burst at the seams. The first time I stepped inside I was shocked to find it so still and silent. My friends and I were the only patrons for the first third of our meal, which was somehow unsettling. I looked around the festive room at the empty wooden chairs engraved with white lilies. The room desperately needed people to complete the scene.

Las Margaritas claims to focus on food from Jalisco, a coastal region in the west of Mexico. Because of this, they offer more seafood dishes than your average Mexican joint. In fact, our fish and seafood selections were some of the best items we tried. Many of the shrimp dishes are gracefully seasoned and erupting with flavor, like the basic arroz con camaron ($10.95) – shrimp with rice. The subtly spiced marinade brought out the sweet, sharp taste in the delicate pink flesh, paired nicely with aromatic rice.

For a restaurant that opened with the intention of bringing authentic food to Orlando, they seem to have a lot of perfunctory Americanized selections – why bother with nachos and jalapeño poppers? Or cheeseburgers? And fajitas, although a tasty addition to Mexican-American repertoire, are definitely a Tex-Mex creation.

Among the dishes I wished I had skipped was the queso flameado ($3.75), which had both the taste and texture of Cheez Whiz, rather than billowy mounds of hot queso blanco.

A shredded beef taco ($2) came with a stale, hard corn tortilla and was disappointing. The beef was well-seasoned, but looked like something served in a school lunchroom – small grains of meat (and sometimes gristle) clung to each other in a shallow pool of grease. Enchiladas ($8.25) fared better, with shredded beef and real cheese. The mole that smothered this dish was flavorful, but slightly sweet, lacking the spiciness and acidity of a well-balanced dish. One of my friends got the pollo combo ($13.75), which came with garlic sautéed shrimp – the best part of the meal. Unfortunately, the chicken was dry. The refried beans were a tad mealy but full-flavored.

If you need a reason to go to Las Margaritas, it is to support a man who has worked hard to get where he is today. But don't fool yourself into thinking that this is the most authentic Mexican food available. It's just OK Mexican food served by someone who once ate authentic food on his home turf.

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