TEQUILA PAYCHECK

La Hacienda, 7575 East Princess Drive (Scottsdale Princess resort), Scottsdale, 585-4848. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 6 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m.

Not too many years ago, dining in ethnic restaurants promised an evening of cheap, homey fare on Formica-topped dinettes.

Oriental cuisine meant chow mein and spareribs; Italian food brought spaghetti in tomato sauce; and Mexican dishes didn't go much past tortillas and beans.

Today, opulent Chinese, Thai and Japanese restaurants cover the Valley, offering exotic dishes. It's now harder to find a decent lasagna than it is to get first-rate seafood risotto. And hip new places feature with-it $6 Spanish tapas and $12 Afghani entrees.

The trend toward upscale ethnic fare, I'll bet, will take off this decade. Of course, it's driven in part by a massive surge in diners' culinary sophistication and the spread of specialty, gourmet and ethnic retail outlets. But there's more to it than that.

In these post-Reagan, tighten-your-belt Clinton years, there's nothing particularly chic or appealing about eating Third World staples in bleak surroundings anymore. The novelty's gone. And romance for peasant foods withers when an evening slumming on rice and beans may seem not so much a Saturday night lark as a taste of the future. So ethnic restaurants are slowly moving away from their low-end niche. To lure customers and profits, they're becoming more festive, more expensive and less predictable.

La Hacienda is a perfect example. The Mexico it suggests is not the one of poor, quaint villages, where peasant women boil beans and grind corn outside adobe huts.

It's the Mexico of the colonial Spanish grandee. It's a sprawling place, with a low, wood-beamed ceiling, thick wood window frames and multiple fireplaces. Elaborately edged mirrors and beautifully carved breakfronts also compete for your attention. So does the lovely Mexican-style dinnerware--made in England, by the way.

Mariachis strolled about the rooms the night we were there, playing "Happy Birthday to You" every few minutes to what seemed like every other guest. For a few moments, I thought La Hacienda, like Denny's, must run some sort of birthday special.

Tequila Sheila also roams the restaurant. She's dressed like one of the Mexican bandits in The Magnificent Seven. But the cartridge belts slung over her shoulders don't contain ammunition; they hold shot glasses, instead. And those aren't pistols in her holster, but bottles of Sauza Gold tequila. For three bucks, she'll pour you a shot of tequila with a spritz of 7-Up, emitting Mexican war whoops as you slug it down. You don't get this with your chips and salsa at Garcia's.

You also don't get food like this at Garcia's, or just about anywhere else in the Valley. I'm innately suspicious of gorgeous-looking women and gorgeous-looking appetizers. I fear disappointment--when the ladies open their mouths, or when I open mine.

But La Hacienda's roasted ancho chile has got it all. It's stuffed with bits of chicken and dried fruit, and draped with an irresistible chipotle cream sauce. Too bad the overeager busboy whisked it away before I could scrape up every last, superb drop.

In contrast, the combination appetizer platter served up an unremarkable variety of the usual suspects: one pleasant, cheese-and-bacon-wrapped shrimp, a crab quesadilla and assorted stuffed tortillas.

After the basket of chips and appetizers were cleared, we got some huge rolls slathered with melted cheese. But who could possibly want to munch on bread at this point? They were as useless as they were tasty.

It's a good thing we laid off them, because the main dishes still had the heft we expect from ethnic cuisine, and plenty of appeal.

The cochinillo asado--roast suckling pig--is not for the burro-and-refried-beans crowd. A whole piglet is wheeled up to the table, toothy grin and all, its body covered as discreetly as the Ayatollah's daughter. A tuxedoed carver, standing on the far side of the cart, decorously lifts the sheet and cuts up a huge portion of unbelievably butter-soft, mild pork, served in its own juices.

My only quibble concerns the insipid stuffing, whose principal ingredient seemed to be garlic.

The heavenly roast boneless breast of duck, glazed with honey and tequila, is just as terrific. The exquisitely tender meat sits in a puddle of rich plum-and-walnut sauce. It comes with a sweet hunk of tamale pie and a saut‚ed squash combo featuring zucchini and chayote. At $15.50, this is one duck dish where you won't mind getting the bill.

Wood-grilled ahi tuna is an enormous, thick slab of fish, beautifully cooked. It's adorned with strips of pepper and nopal cactus, the touch that gives this dish whatever "Mexican" character it possesses. Unfortunately, the kitchen drowns everything under too much cream sauce--it's dressed to overkill. The chef had the right idea with the side dish, though, a simple medley featuring white and black beans, garlic, corn and hominy. It's a smooth quintet.

Desserts include a routine flan and a potent banana ice cream concoction featuring rum, bananas and lots of caramelized brown sugar in a light pastry shell.

Best, though, is the alluring cajeta cheesecake, made with sweet, thickened milk in a pleasing ginger crust. Inexplicably, each dessert came identically drizzled with the same orange-caramel sauce. Apparently, the pastry chef had more sauce than imagination on this particular night.

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