Cafe Reviews

MOUTH OF THE BORDER

Page 3 of 4

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 albndigas 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 albndigas de pescado translates to about four American bucks. You definitely won't mind spending your pesos on the fish entrees. Camarnes 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.

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Howard Seftel