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.

La Hacienda goes way beyond typical resort fare, even for tony Scottsdale. You just have to clear the psychological hurdle of shelling out about $25 per person for Mexican food, no matter how different or exceptional. Welcome to the 90s. Cantina! del Pedregal, 34505 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 488-0715. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., seven days a week; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Cantina! del Pedregal won't remind anyone of a burro shack, either. It, too, has left the $5.95 enchilada and taco combination plate behind. At this mildly upscale Mexican eatery, the $8.95 combination plates include Sonoran crab cakes.

No dreary, coffee-shop ethnic look here. The thick plaster walls simulate adobe, with their smooth, rounded corners. Weavings and embroidered cloths rest on the tables, protected by glass. There's a tourist shop full of gewgaws on the walls: papier-mƒch‚ dolls, wooden snakes, masks. It's all for sale, too: $7 to $300, says the menu. Yes, I realize everything in America, from ex-presidents to Rockefeller Center, has a price tag nowadays. But it's disconcerting to imagine someone picking up and walking away with part of the decor.

My indignation eased after I got started on the high-octane frozen margarita, a heady combination of Cuervo silver and gold, 1800 and Cointreau in a jumbo glass. Indignation disappeared entirely when I dove into the nachos el Ped, made with two kinds of fresh chips, two cheeses, black beans, jalape¤os and chorizo. Along with gratis tomato salsa, you can order specialty varieties. According to the chile chart in the men's room, the orange haba¤ero rates a perfect ten on the ten-point chile heat scale. After a few fiery tastes of the haba¤ero salsa, I can report that number is way too low.

I'm a sucker for Sonoran crab cakes, an expensive starter that always seems to take a bigger bite out of my wallet than my appetite. Cantina!'s version proved true to form, but did compensate by being absolutely scrumptious. Two perfectly done cakes, stuffed with crab, come with colorful bits of jicama, carrot and corn in a sublime tomatillo lime sauce.

The main dishes don't reach quite as far as roast suckling pig, but they go beyond the fare of your corner taco stand.

Chicken mole featured a heart-shaped, boneless, grilled chicken breast with a mesmerizing sharp, bittersweet sauce. The side orders of whole black beans and short-grain Mexican rice made pleasing accompaniments. But what was the scoop of guacamole supposed to accomplish? Provide a bit of local color? The shrimp entree, the priciest platter at $12.75, didn't break any culinary ground. The six medium-size shrimp did come meaty and firm, spiffily arranged over rice. And even I wouldn't squawk if the divine smoked red chile sauce they nestled in, like every other sauce here, were bottled, hung on the walls and offered for sale. The chef could have done better, though, than the tired refried beans on the plate. And the promised plantain chips were puny, thin as microchips with half their flavor.

There's a fresh, daily "Mexican regional seafood specialty," apparently offered to cater to the one member of your group who dislikes Mexican food and came here grudgingly. On a recent Friday night, it was a nothing-special halibut, a bit overcooked and topped with uninspired bits of lettuce, tomato and onion. The winner among the desserts was a dreamy rice-pudding br–l‚e. Thick, creamy, filled with plump raisins and a touch of lemon zest, it came with a crispy caramel glaze in an individual chafing dish. An apple-pecan chimichanga, sprinkled with brown sugar and floating in cräme anglaise, finished a close runner-up.

Right now Cantina! del Pedregal is cleverly positioned between neighborhood Mexican joint and high-end Mexican resort fare. Judging by the crowds we encountered here, it's got the right stuff at the right time.


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