MOUTH OF THE BORDER

"Seftel," barked my editor, "are you interested in doing some foreign travel and eating?" You bet I was. Visions of wandering about France, Michelin Guide in one hand and thousands of expense-account francs in the other, danced through my head. Or maybe the boss had something more exotic in mind, like a trek through Mongolia, where I'd sample the fare at roadside yurts. My reveries came to a sudden halt. "Well, drive to the border and check out Nogales, Mexico." Okay, it's not Paris. It's not even Ulan Bator. But to my delight, it wasn't Tijuana, either. A buzzing city of a quarter-million folks (the American side has about 20,000), Nogales, Sonora, is one Mexican border town that doesn't make you feel as if you've just entered a Hieronymous Bosch painting. And I found several restaurants that offer dining quality as high as anything in the Valley.

Nogales' tourist streets offer up surprisingly few visible signs of abject, Third World poverty, the kind that always makes me want to run back across the border and hug the kids. The border area, hosed down daily, is relatively tidy. While you won't find antiseptic levels of Germanic cleanliness, Nogales' tourist center is no grimier than most Phoenix malls. And the merchants themselves struck me as uncommonly restrained. In Africa and the Middle East, once souvenir sellers latch on to you, you practically have to get them surgically removed. Here, however, an "I'm just looking" works most of the time. For gringo convenience, you can count on bargaining in English and making all your transactions in dollars. The peso's recent devaluation no doubt will affect mutual funds, Mexico's balance of payments and multinationals' south-of-the-border profits. But it won't have much of an impact on the border-town price of serapes, shrimp cocktails or a photo of your spouse perched on a burro, all of which seem to be In-God-We-Trust impervious to national currency fluctuations. Just because you'll pay for a Nogales restaurant dinner in dollars, though, doesn't mean you'll have to fork over a lot of them. Watch out, however, for the meal tax--Mexico slaps on a 10 percent surcharge. And don't tempt fate by driving into Mexico. I've discovered that locals consider red lights and what stop signs exist to be mere suggestions, not orders. Anyway, the tourist section is just over the line. Your best bet: For $4, park your car on the American side in one of the secure lots by the McDonald's or Burger King two blocks from the frontier, then walk over. You'll also be spared the agony of waiting to clear customs coming back, trapped in four high-density lanes of exhaust fumes, surrounded by German shepherds sniffing around your vehicle for drugs and stowaways.

The restaurants I recommend are all located just a five- or ten-minute stroll from the border. Be aware that lunch and dinner menus are identical. Mexicans often eat a big midday meal, and don't show up for dinner until 8 or 9 o'clock. Get to a restaurant at 6:30 p.m. and your fellow diners will be snowbirds from Apache Junction, who come down here by the busload hunting for bargains. You can also spot visiting Americans without looking at your watch. The local dining-out crowd is invariably well-coifed and decked out in good-looking duds. Most of my fellow countrymen, on the other hand, look like they've come directly from the bowling alley. Casual clothes are fine, but try to make it something other than jeans, tee shirt and sneakers if you plan to have dinner elsewhere besides a taco stand.

Happy eating!

La Roca, Calle Elias #91, Nogales, 011/52/631-2-07-60 (from U.S.). Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week.

This is the queen of Nogales restaurants. First, the look. Downstairs is a picturesque courtyard, dominated by a fountain and surrounded by upscale shops. The striking dining area is upstairs, the main room framed by arches on each side. (The manager gave me a tour of smaller, elegant dining rooms in the back, including one, he said, where John Wayne once hosted a meal.) Just beyond the arches on one side are window seats, overlooking Calle Elias. Beyond the arches on the other is a wall of sheer rock--La Roca is built into the side of a cliff.

Talented house musicians entertain from the bandstand, and tables are moved out of the way after dinner for dancing. When the musicians take a break, roving mariachis, who roam from restaurant to restaurant, move in. Be careful if they ask to play for you. Each song can cost between five and eight dollars.

I used to think that Thai soups set the world's standard, but now I'm not too sure. La Roca's broths are sensational. The Azteca model comes filled with tortilla strips, cheese and big hunks of avocado. But what really kicks it into gear is the on-the-side bowl of ground pasilla chile, mild and mellow, that you sprinkle into the liquid. The flavor is sublime. Just as fetching is the tlalape¤o, a somewhat spicy, chile-infused tomato broth thick with chicken, rice and avocado. I could have made a meal of this. But then I'd have missed out on the main dishes. Drunken shrimp features mouth-wateringly fresh Guaymas shrimp. Once you've had fresh shrimp, you may be unable ever to go back to the overpriced, spongy critters most Valley restaurants dish out. You get six large crustaceans, enveloped in a puffy beer batter. Rice and cheese-flecked calabicitas, a zucchini-based side dish, round out this appealing platter.

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