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.

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.

Stick around for the flan before resuming your shopping adventure. Brother Marcos, I'm sure, would agree.

Restaurant El Faisal, Calle Elias #86, Nogales, 011/52/631-2-19-86 (from U.S.). Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Wednesday through Monday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. If you're looking for a little Mexican adventure and maybe the best seafood in Nogales, check out El Faisal. Owned by Mexicans of Arabic extraction, it's not the kind of place where you'll find linen napkins, waiters fluent in English or bottles of purified water. But it's been around for more than 20 years, and it won't take more than one meal to discover why. The good times start quickly, with crunchy chips, a bold picante sauce and a bowl of tongue-tingling pickled peppers. Then prepare yourself for some aquatic treats. One of the octopus's natural defenses against predators must be its toughness. Most of the time, a cocktail of pulpo seems to exhibit all the juicy charms of a Michelin tire. But El Faisal's supplier must fish in some tender waters. The octopus here is outstandingly soft, floating in a zesty tomato-lime broth. An even more inspired starter, though, is the alb¢ndigas de pescado, a superb soup featuring savory fish dumplings. Strips of chile and carrot help deepen the flavor of the broth. Many of El Faisal's customers like to make this their breakfast. It's hearty, tasty and filling, so it's easy to see why. Don't be scared off by prices that only the Sultan of Brunei could apparently afford. Even though it's been a while since Mexico lopped three zeroes off its old currency and adopted the new peso, El Faisal's menu still gives the cost in old pesos. The "18,000" price tag on the alb¢ndigas de pescado translates to about four American bucks. You definitely won't mind spending your pesos on the fish entrees. Camar¢nes bambu, a chef's special, brought five massive, grilled Guaymas shrimp, tightly wrapped with crisp bacon and served over rice. I had fresh Guaymas shrimp in Phoenix a few months ago, and a plate of three cost 18 dollars. El Faisal's larger platter, at 35,000 old pesos or 35 new pesos, is roughly half the price.

Snapper prepared Morelia-style--stuffed with minced shrimp, onions and cilantro, in a light mushroom-tomato sauce--is also a cause for joy. A topnotch chile relleno and fresh pan tocido, a Mexican dinner roll that comes grilled and buttered, provide just the right accompaniment. Even if you're armed with the street address, tracking down Restaurant El Faisal can still be an adventure. That's because the Calle Elias entrance lacks a restaurant sign or street number. Just keep your eyes peeled for the blue door, across the street from, and a few feet north of, La Roca's parking lot. Then, knock three times and whisper, "Pescado."

El Cid, Avenida Obregon #124, Nogales, 011/52/631-2-15-00 (from U.S.). Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 10 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week.

"Is it SAFE to eat here?" asks an English-language sign at the foot of the stairs leading up to El Cid. "Yes," it boldly answers. After all, there's "imported American water and ice for your peace of mind." No doubt about it, El Cid is definitely the place to feed those reluctant gringos who need to be tied up and sedated before they'll venture south of the border.

The all-English-language menu allays lots of fears. Familiar foods, like hamburgers, chicken sandwiches and even a BLT, are available. And don't worry about imbibing too many potent margaritas, falling into a stupor and getting rolled wandering back to the border in the Nogales night. The margaritas here couldn't make a newborn tipsy. Yet despite the care the restaurant takes to make diners forget they're even in Mexico, some of the dishes can't help reminding them of the country's stimulating fare. The mock turtle soup overflows with flavorful ingredients--beef, avocado, cheese, tortilla strips, swimming in a hard-hitting broth. And the luscious scallop cocktail, bursting with meltingly soft Canadian mollusks, is my idea of scallop heaven. The shrimp Veracruz shows how El Cid perfectly marries Mexican food with American sensibilities. You get ten wonderful shrimp, bathed in a completely unmenacing sauce of green peppers, onion, tomato and celery. And, to make us spud eaters feel even more at home, it comes with thick hunks of roasted potato. And while the Mexican combination plate certainly sounded tame enough--taco, enchilada, chimichanga, rice and beans--it turned out that tame didn't necessarily mean lame. The enchilada was stuffed with white Mexican cheese and moistened with a fragrant achiote sauce; the taco held ample amounts of charred, shredded beef; and the deep-fried chimi had an appealing, almost egg-roll-like crust.

If you're the kind of turista who'd rather be safe than sorry, El Cid offers the right blend of dining security and taste.

For news and notes on dining out, see Second Helpings on page

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