THE ACCIDENTAL TURISTA

Dos Flamingos, 10155 East Via Linda, Scottsdale, 391-0460. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Sunday, 4 to 10 p.m.

What makes America's great cities great? Museums? Sure. Nightlife? Absolutely. Cosmopolitan bustle? Of course.

But most of all, great cities are identified with distinctive kinds of food.
So if you want a fresh pastrami sandwich on real Jewish rye, you head to the Big Apple.

If you want sprout-topped California salads sprinkled with organic sunflower seeds, you trek to the Big Orange.

If you want gumbo and crayfish born on the bayou, you take off for the Big Easy.

And now, I've discovered, if you crave authentic Americanized Mexican food, you can make a run for the border of Scottsdale, the lard-free Big Enchilada.

How can you tell a Scottsdale restaurant, like the newly opened Dos Flamingos, serves genuine Americanized Mexican fare?

First, check out the decor. Look for a bright, tropical motif. At Dos Flamingos, you'll find large, airy rooms, bent cane chairs, bamboo fans slowly turning along a rotating 50-foot-long paddle suspended from the ceiling, and a live palm tree in the center of the room.

A colorful mix of peach, purple, lime and turquoise shows up on napkins, place mats, artificial flowers and dinnerware, along with vibrant yellow duct work overhead. Second, check out the menu. It's tailored to gringo tastes, with comfortable choices like tacos and chimichangas. Bumpkins can even choose hamburgers or grilled cheese sandwiches. But there will also be a few intriguing choices that don't look like they came off the Taco Bell drive-through board.

And third, check out the ingredients. The chefs will show an almost maternal interest in your health. They'll forswear lard for canola oil, use "lite" sour cream and low-fat cheese and skin their chickens.

On a recent Saturday night, an uncharacteristic lapse in my eating schedule--late breakfast, no lunch--had left me susceptible to appetizers I usually avoid.

Given the chance, I'm prone to pig out on nachos washed down by beer. But a glance at a trio of equally hungry companions reassured me that I'd never be able to hog these seafood treats.

I was right. A heaping portion of chips, plenty for four, came drenched in bubbling jack and cheddar cheeses, with some spinach and tomatoes blended in. On top perched a few teeny shrimp, some meaty hunks of fish and "krab." Guacamole, sour cream and sliced jalape¤os came on the side. We packed it away, only temporarily disconcerted by the puddle of grease collecting at the bottom of the platter. (Hint to management: Change the shape of the serving dish.)

Luckily, the nachos competition had primed our appetites, not ruined them, so we still had plenty of enthusiasm for the interesting-sounding main dishes.

But they turned out to be a lot less challenging than we hoped. Instead, they seemed geared toward the kind of people who might summon up enough courage to take an escorted tour of Tijuana, but who wouldn't think of stepping off the bus.

Pollo de Acapulco, located under the menu's "Specialties of Mexico" section, is a grilled skinless chicken breast, topped with cheese and a mild red jalape¤o sauce, tangy but not overpowering. It's a pretty tame and unmemorable concoction, a perfect specimen of Americanized Mexican cuisine.

Flautas especiale brought three crispy corn tortillas "stuffed," according to the menu, with a blend of shrimp, crab and fish. But in fact, it's such a miserly blend that you get as much flavor of the sea driving over the Salt River. This dish simply won't float.

I had high hopes for the unusual tortitas de carne, described as marinated shredded beef tossed in egg batter and saut‚ed in a homemade tomatillo sauce.

But once again, what turned up was a gringoized platter of gloppy beef chunks that made us glad we had filled in the cracks with nachos. The dishes come with good rice, so-so beans and a welcome, off-beat garnish of red cabbage, jicama and green onion.

Predictably enough, it was the traditional gringo food and straight-out American items that showed where the kitchen's true skills lay.

Only the prospect of a New York strip steak had persuaded my daughter to accompany us in the first place, and she wasn't disappointed. It was a big, juicy slab, a bargain at $5.95.

The spinach enchilada also hit a high note, and we scraped its plate clean. But you pay for your thrills: $4.95 for one … la carte enchilada seems a bit steep.

I enjoyed, too, the red beef tamale, even though I ordered the green corn version. It had a vigorous, beefy flavor, and the strong taste of corn.

The desserts won't shock anyone with their novelty, but they're worth sampling. My daughter devoured the big bowl of fried ice cream, rolled in a crunchy honey coating. And the sopaipillas also came the way I like, airy and puffy, coated with cinnamon and sugar. Only the flan seemed ordinary, not particularly creamy or rich.

Dos Flamingos has one definite plus, a comfortable, oversize bar area. These days on Friday and Saturday nights, Khani Cole is performing.

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