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Sandwiches also receive care. Pambozo is grilled bread crammed with chiles, cheese, onions, potatoes and sour cream. The torta Cubana layers breaded, fried beef, pounded millimeter-thin, a slice of ham, cheese, tomato, avocado and onion. I'm especially partial to the torta filled with zesty chorizo and eggs.
Seafood isn't in the same class as the rest of the fare. Camarones a la Diabla bring 10 devilishly spicy shrimp, while camarones empanizados bring the same number of freshly battered crustaceans. Both platters are okay, but that's about as much enthusiasm as I can muster.
There's no reason to linger for dessert. Flan is innocuous; the chocolate cake tastes old and dried out; and my server sniffed one day's rice pudding, and advised me to take a pass.
2831 N. 24th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85008
Region: East Phoenix
Tequila's Mexican Restaurant, 4175 North Goldwater, Scottsdale, 425-1200. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Juan tons $6.50
Stacked enchiladas $8.95
Pork picado $10.50
Tequila shrimp $16.95
El Nopalito delivers an authentic taste of Mexico, without making you go through customs. All you need to enjoy it is about 10 bucks and an open mind.
If you're the type who doesn't want to get any closer to Mexico than Old Town San Diego, you'll find Tequila's very reassuring. Everyone speaks English. Your fellow diners hail from Scottsdale. The room is sleek and shiny, decorated with Diego Rivera posters and recessed glass display cases highlighting a miniature adobe village. A young, good-looking crowd hangs around the bar. And, best of all, you'll be relieved to discover that the nonthreatening menu contains no surprises.
Well, perhaps there is one surprise: The gringo offerings are unexpectedly tasty. This kitchen may not have much of an imagination, but occasionally it flashes real cooking skills.
Don't look for those skills in the lackluster chips and forgettable salsas, which have no spunk. But you will find talent on display in several starters. Take, for instance, the "Juan Tons," crispy, deep-fried munchies filled with spinach and cream cheese, served with a smashing, sweet-tart chipotle dipping sauce accented with orange and honey. An ancient Aztec recipe? Hardly. But I bet Cortez and his men would have liked it.
I bet they also would have enjoyed the scrumptious shrimp and crab quesadilla, generously stuffed with seafood and cheese. It's almost 10 bucks, but as I wolfed it down, I couldn't work up much indignation over the cost. Albondigas soup is another starter option that presses the right buttons. A few meatballs and assorted veggies come swimming in a bowl so big you may wonder why Tequila's doesn't issue you a bathing suit. While the soup doesn't have much ethnic flair, it has real charm on a cool winter evening.
If you prefer your starter in pure liquid form, don't pass up the frozen Ultimate Margarita. Fashioned from Cuervo 1800 and Cointreau, it's a sure-fire way to enhance your mood.
Several main dishes make a nice impression, as well. Maybe my expectations were pitched too low, but the pork picado is way better than I dared hope. Tender chunks of pork are sauteed with tomatoes, onion, garlic and just enough jalapeno to get your out-of-town visitors' attention. Like most of the entrees here, the platter comes with salty rice and outstanding refried beans. (If you prefer, you can get first-rate pinto or black beans instead.) I also had a good time with the pollo Azteca, grilled chicken breast teamed with sauteed onions and peppers, topped with Jack cheese and a mild ranchero sauce. The $9.95 tag is another plus. And I had no complaints about the stacked enchiladas: vigorously seasoned ground beef spread between three corn tortilla layers, all buried under an avalanche of cheese and sour cream, then moistened by a multidimensional red sauce.
There's nothing special, however, about the machaca chimichanga. Yes, it's hot and crisp, but I couldn't remember anything else about it five minutes later. That's how I felt about the green corn tamale, chicken enchilada and chile relleno, too.
Two dishes have promising concepts, but don't follow through on the execution. Tequila shrimp features five large, meaty critters, butterflied and lined with a cheesy, citrusy, tequila-tinged filling. Unfortunately, everything gets thickly battered and fried, and the flavors are lost. I say forget the batter, glaze the shrimp with tequila and set it all under the broiler.
The kitchen also isn't getting all it can out of the fajitas. Everyone loves hearing the hissing sound the sizzling ingredients make on a cast-iron skillet. Tequila's, though, dispenses with the sizzle, putting everything on a big plate. If you're going gringo, go gringo all the way.
Go elsewhere for dessert. The sopaipilla tastes like a biscuit, and the likes of fried ice cream and flan aren't going to interest even provincial Midwestern silo dwellers.
Tequila's doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: a Mexican restaurant for Scottsdalians and tourists who won't venture south of Thomas, let alone south of the border. For those folks, it's right on target.