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Mex Offender

Imagine what the horrible result would be if Denny's switched its all-American concept to contemporary Mexican cuisine. Just try to visualize the culinary disaster assured if Furr's doctored its menu to include $15 plates of prickly pear barbecue cactus shrimp. And what, God forbid, would diners be in for if...
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Imagine what the horrible result would be if Denny's switched its all-American concept to contemporary Mexican cuisine. Just try to visualize the culinary disaster assured if Furr's doctored its menu to include $15 plates of prickly pear barbecue cactus shrimp. And what, God forbid, would diners be in for if Wal-Mart cafeterias tried to expand past corn dogs, into carne Milanese in green chile sauce?

Unfortunately, that idea no longer is simply malevolent suggestion, designed to torture culinarians and send capable chefs everywhere scurrying to therapy in the horror of it all.

Sad to say, there's a brand-new Mexican restaurant in town, gleaming in a two-story building along old town Cave Creek's main drag, and it's concocting such barbarous dishes in its kitchen that I almost wish its chef could be called up on charges of cruelty to chiles.

There's no gentler way to put it: Fandango is a fiasco.

What's the matter? I can pinpoint the problem exactly. Fandango's owners have based their recipes on mass-market buffets, like the kind guests find in cheesy business hotels near airports. It doesn't surprise me in the least to discover after a few visits that Fandango's current chef comes from exactly that manner of Hilton property. This type of food may fly for a salesman from Urbandale, Iowa, but not for regular Valley residents who cherish tacos and tostadas almost as much as apple pie. And certainly not at these prices, topping out at an embarrassing $16 for shrimp fajitas.

I don't get it. A lot of work obviously has gone into this three-month-old operation. The building itself is new (an amazing zoning feat in Cave Creek) and thoughtfully designed with a comfortable outdoor bar and a great patio down below, spliced with babbling, multilevel creeks. Inside, there's so much artwork and color it looks like a Crayola box exploded. Massive murals -- the works of local artists -- dominate, portraying mountain scenes, Spanish dancers, Spanish outlaws and classic cars. It's true I dislike the predominant color -- sort of a canned, refried-bean orange -- but I'm tickled by displays of rubber chickens, sequined high-heeled shoes and a funky, life-size mannequin of a showgirl on a trapeze in one corner. Blond wood booths are cozy -- they're even scattered across the main floor, so no one feels cheated with a regular table.

While Fandango's menu promises dishes that are "spicy," "hearty," "fiesta [flavored]" and "zesty," this Mexican food is so bedraggled, so boring, it never would have the strength to make it even halfway across the border.

Chips and salsa, for example, sit on my table untouched after a few cursory nibbles. The thick red and yellow chips are good enough, but the salsa is weirdly flat. I feel like there should be some speaker at a podium up front, droning on about second-quarter revenues. A margarita, too, makes no moves, reminding me of a premixed bottle brand I sampled at a Circle K a few weeks earlier.

Many menu items have simply gone missing. Tomatillo toast, for instance, has no tomatillo. What's the point, then, of consuming four thin slices of overly buttered sourdough toast topped with pulverized chicken, some cheese and pico de gallo?

If there has to be a point to downing this stuff, then make it to avoid getting anywhere near grilled vegetable gorditas. These are buffet fillers if I've ever seen them, impossible to savor with anything more than clinical interest as I dissect what's essentially dry corn bread (called polenta here) flecked with microscopic bits of jalapeño and red pepper on a stain of half-melted Cheddar.

For a real insult, though, turn to Fandango's margarita shrimp cocktail, unforgivable for its exorbitant $9.50 price tag. Sure, we get six crustaceans rather than the menu-promised five, but these "jumbo" guys flunked out of their weight class. What makes them margarita, I don't know -- they taste to me like unadorned shrimp, served with lime slices and an annoying, out-of-the-bottle cocktail sauce.

I'm trying to find something good, really I am, particularly after warm greetings from Fandango's owner and chef, and seeing the many seemingly pleased families digging into dinner around me. But the challenge is defeating. Albóndigas soup, for example, tastes like it's fresh from a Campbell's vegetable beef can, with hardly any rice, and the cup contains one frightened, thirsty meatball.

It just ain't there, folks, not in the Baja fish tacos, or the olé tacos. Fish tacos taste just out of a freezer bag, dry and rubbery at the same time. A "yogurt tartar" sauce is no improvement over mayonnaise. Two olé tacos with my choice of chicken bring more (but not much more) of that granular poultry, teamed with sometimes creamy, sometimes withered -- but generally witless -- refried beans smacked around with black pepper and seedless (mild) jalapeño, plus mushy orange rice.

But if the beans are challenged, a red chile relleno is an outright stumbling fool. A large poblano is a nice choice of fruit (it's spicier than the common Anaheim), but check the expiration date -- the dark green being I bite into is actually moldy. There's no mistaking that tart, yeasty flavor. Lumpy batter doesn't help matters; neither does a sloppy filling of jack and Cheddar (any Chihuahua cheese here isn't speaking up).

I also can't find any virtue in carne Milanese, advertised as a dusted 10-ounce top sirloin. "Dissed" is more like it. This version is fatty, poor-grade beef, slung with canned mushrooms, soft red pepper strips and green chile sauce, served with a from-the-bag flour tortilla.

At least the carne is better than a truly fatigued chuleta de puerco. Grilled pork chops? Hmmm. What I get is a single slab of overcooked pig, so heavily smoked it's red on the edges. There's no trace of red chile marinade, but here is where my toast's tomatillo finally staggers in.

Enchiladas de la plaza are chafing dish chow, and perhaps not even worthy of that. Three stiff flour tortillas hold thimbles of soft chicken and Cheddar under a drip of green sauce. If something this basic can't cut it, I'm giving up.

So it will surprise no one to learn that Fandango's filete frito pescado falls flat. A chunk of grilled salmon is so overcooked it's obviously been waiting for a home for a long while. "Fiery?" This fish wouldn't have felt pain if spiced while still alive. The best thing on the plate is the fresh spinach leaves, dressed with balsamic vinegar. But how tough would it have been to toss in some fresh mushrooms and peppers, instead of the processed variety found here? The vegetables that go along with the dish will be familiar friends to many folks who've suffered through board-room luncheons -- basic steamed zucchini and carrots.

I expect little outcry, either, with the revelation that cactus shrimp barbacoa comes in DOA. This six-critter dish is straight from a convention-group menu, slathered in commercial-grade barbecue sauce, lounging on a blend of black beans and red peppers that thankfully, at least, pack some heat. A topping of tri-color tortilla frizzles is so banquet-room bland I expect to see a side garnish of parsley, too.

In true hotel-menu fashion, the best thing Fandango has going is its desserts. Selections change weekly, but the apple caramel burro is a safe choice. The presentation is pure sugar theatrics, spooling a hot, baked tortilla with chunky apple filling and ice cream, then dolling it with commercial whipped cream and sliced strawberries. What will get the Fuller Brush crowd cooing is a pretty "sunset" scene of caramel and chocolate, the varying colors splayed like sunbeams.

My dictionary tells me the primary meaning of "fandango" is a lively Spanish dance. Its secondary definition is "tomfoolery." Enough said.

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