MOUTH OF THE BORDER

Carnivores who worked up an appetite from shopping should head right to the Tampique¤a plate, a juicy, butter-soft strip of marinated tenderloin, accompanied by a chile relleno and enchilada, each smothered with Mexican white cheese and strips of chile.

La Roca's desserts are just as impressive as everything else. The flan here gets its distinction from a few teaspoons of pineapple, which adds a snappy bite to the smooth, custardy texture. The lemon tart, shortbread crust topped with lemon custard and meringue, is lick-your-plate satisfying. Without drinks, a full dinner for two at this charming spot will set you back about 50 bucks. My advice: Make a night of it. El Greco, Avenida Obregon #152, Nogales, 011/52/631-2-42-59 (from U.S.). Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.

Operated by Mexicans of Greek origin, El Greco spruces up some of its first-rate fare with a bit of Mediterranean sparkle. It's a smart-looking place, on the second floor, overlooking Nogales' major tourist street. Several tiers of seating, an eager-to-please organist and singer (the repertoire includes "New York, New York") and a smooth, tuxedoed staff--when I dropped my napkin, a waiter brought over a new one before I had time to bend down and pick it up--give the room a sophisticated feel. So does the food. In fact, the good vibes start from the moment El Greco sets down the chips. They're fantastic--thick, crunchy and lined with a bit of cheese, unlike anything I've run into here in the Valley. Along with an icy Dos Equis, they really get you primed.

The quesadilla al Greco, slathered with Mexican cheese, covered with strips of chile and sprinkled with cinnamon, keeps the momentum rolling. And so does the luscious campechano cocktail, a seafood lover's dream come true, filled with shrimp, scallops and oysters. The entrees are huge, tasty and very reasonably priced. El Greco's Tampique¤a plate features a gorgeously tender slab of beef, a hearty enchilada stuffed with carne asada and mounds of beans, rice, guacamole and chile. Try finding something comparable in the Valley for $9.50. Shrimp saut‚ gets a Greek touch from lemon butter and feta cheese. Thirteen shrimp--count 'em--served with rice are right on target.

If you're looking for a purely Mexican dish, check out the chicken mole, a whole boneless breast bathed in a dark, subtly piquant sauce with undertones of chile and chocolate. Diners lacking a sense of adventure will find comfort and reassurance in the excellent beef medallions coated with a rich pepper sauce, accompanied by creamy scalloped potatoes and steamed vegetables. At dessert time, skip the unexceptional flan, chocolate cake and cheesecake. You want the outstanding cajeta crepe, a mesmerizing treat fashioned from thick, intensely sweet, caramelized goat's milk poured over a thin folded pancake. Wow.

Two hungry people should easily be able to get out of this very pleasant spot for $30 to $40. But given the quality of the food, service and atmosphere, I don't think they'll be in much of a rush.

Hotel Fray Marcos, Avenida Campillo #91, Nogales, 011/52/631-2-16-51 (from U.S.). Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. Brother Marcos de Niza, a member of the Franciscan Order and a delegate of Spain's Viceroy of Mexico, passed through here way back in 1539, looking for the riches of the Seven Cities of Cibola. Too bad the hotel and restaurant bearing his name weren't around then. I bet he'd have enjoyed them. You can't miss the old-fashioned, charming Hotel Fray Marcos, located just a few steps from the border. It's this city's tallest structure, and it's pink. Walk past the front desk, where the clerk, still unaware of the computer revolution, languidly pecks at a manual typewriter and files reservations by hand. To the left is the entrance to the off-track-betting parlor, where you can bet on horse racing and American sports. Turn right, and you'll head into the restaurant. It doesn't look like much--just a Mexican coffee shop, with paper placemats and napkins. The setting is more conducive to a lunch break from shopping than a romantic dinner. The tuxedoed waiters, for instance, have a worn look about them. And why not--ours told us he has been serving there for 44 years, since 1951.

Like almost every restaurant in town, the Fray Marcos offers green turtle soup. Don't believe it. It's no longer legal to make soup out of the reptile. Instead, the mock turtle broth here, and everywhere else, is fashioned from beef. It's pretty good, but not nearly as compelling as the sopa de ajo con un huevo, a deep-flavored garlic broth, embellished by a floating egg, that really opens up your sinuses. A Nogales native who loves this place urged me to try the enchiladas Suizas. That was good advice. These beauties are scrumptious, corn tortillas wrapped around tender, shredded beef, topped with a heavenly blend of stretchy Mexican cheese, cottage cheese and cream. Anyone expecting the kind of tasteless, gloppy enchiladas dished out at most Valley Mexican restaurants will be happily disappointed. If $11 won't take too big a bite out of your budget, don't miss the grilled sea bass. Juicy, flaky and succulent, it's got a bit of a crust and comes topped with lots of crisp garlic browned in butter. Onion rings battered with corn meal make an offbeat, if oily, accompaniment.

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