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Stuffing Shockers

I'm going to go out on a limb and say this: Cheating is good for us. When it comes to primal urges, human beings aren't designed to be monogamous. Even Charles Darwin, after discovering female barnacles that kept a tiny male partner in each of two little pockets inside their...
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I'm going to go out on a limb and say this: Cheating is good for us. When it comes to primal urges, human beings aren't designed to be monogamous. Even Charles Darwin, after discovering female barnacles that kept a tiny male partner in each of two little pockets inside their shells, acknowledged that the Victorian notion of naturally monogamous females wasn't pure.

People crave variety when satisfying their ignoble stirrings. But leave betraying romantic partners to bottom feeders like barnacles and Bill Clinton; the only straying I'm condoning involves that other most compelling human craving -- food.

Think about it. How many times have you visited a Mexican restaurant? How many times have you gone straight to your regular squeeze -- a cheese crisp, a couple of tacos or maybe an enchilada? How many times have you sneaked a peek at the luscious plates on neighboring tables? And how many times, finally, have you left, quietly satisfied, yet wondering deep down if other diners are having more fun than you are?

They might very well be. The Valley's awash with exciting Mexican dining choices. Here, in our bustling little burg, there are places like El Tepeyac in South Phoenix, where diners wanting to test different waters will find a warm, and invigorating, welcome.

El Tepeyac opened early last year, just south of the legendary eatery Los Dos Molinos, and a hop away from South Mountain. Named after an Aztec hill upon which the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared in 1531, the restaurant proves an experimental rendezvous doesn't need to be sleazy. The bland green-and-white box exterior belies the charms within, with brilliant Aztec murals splashed across the walls, elegant chandeliers, silk flowers and hanging plants. In this part of town, it's unlikely anyone would know your name, but if they did, they likely wouldn't see you anyway, nuzzling with your new dish in a tall-backed booth amid the cool darkness of serape-draped windows.

With a menu that's heavy on seafood, El Tepeyac invites adventure. With a supporting cast of familiar burritos, tacos and chimis, though, the safety net's firmly in place. Quesadilla mesclada, for example, is simply a mixed quesadilla, combining white and yellow cheeses, beautifully charred chunks of beef, tomato, green pepper, onion and the mildest whisper of green chile. But the two giant flour tortillas enveloping the mix are homemade, and expertly grilled to a bubbly golden turn. Be warned -- although the quesadilla is listed as an appetizer, it's more than a meal. Lighter appetites can find smaller starter satisfaction in a sopa de pastor, a compact, fluffy masa cake topped with spicy grilled pork nubbins, refried beans, cheese and lettuce.

Timid tasters will find their coctel de camaron (shrimp cocktail) at El Tepeyac, but step out a little and explore the vuelve a la vida. Beyond its supposed ability to cure a hangover, the dish brings a sultry tumble of shrimp, tender octopus, squid and oysters, spiked with cucumber, onion, avocado, cilantro and lime.

Yes, that's real turtle in the caldo de caguamanta, I'm assured, but I truly doubt it's actually caguama, a large, now endangered, reptile. The stew isn't often available, though, and there's more to appreciate in the caldo siete mares (seven seas stew), anyway. The thin orange broth is bracingly fishy, thanks to a variety of sea critters including soft calamari, big shrimp, firm fish, octopus and oysters speckled with green pepper, tomato, onion and cilantro. Spice is self-regulated, and you'll want more, added in from little cups of salsa on the table.

A shrimp taco benefits from salsa, too (the taco's not on the menu, but comes when I order a fish taco, so feel free to ask for it). The deep-fried crustaceans are on the dry side, dipped in nutty batter and wrapped in double corn tortillas with iceberg lettuce, tomato and onion. Shrimp are better served as enchiladas, three thick rolls buoyed by lots of cheese and mellow red chili sauce.

Spicing begins to slink in with the most traditional dish, a No. 7 combination plate, a favorite I sample for control purposes (and, well, because all wild variety aside, I really like green chili burritos). Heat lurks in the burrito, and as an unexpected but lovely punch, in a dollop of creamy guacamole perched alongside. This is the style of burrito I favor -- thinly wrapped in its flour tortilla so each bite tastes of beef and chili, not starch. Rounding out the plate are an everyday chicken taco, and a rolled taco, soft and stuffed with potato. The best, though, are the outstanding sides of beans and rice. So often overlooked, El Tepeyac's versions have been treated with great respect, rendering slurp-worthy soupy beans and moist, soft rice dotted with peas.

Folks who've never experienced the kiss of mole poblano on their lips should start with El Tepeyac's model. A chicken thigh and drumstick lounge under a pool of velvety auburn sauce, dusky with rich chocolate tones and chiles.

Still not convinced that experimenting with something new is worth the risk? Camarones rellenos ala Tepeyac will sway you. This platter of 10 meaty, bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed shrimp is seductive. Smoky and salty in its porky coverlet, the shrimp is skewered and mounded under a delightful lake of cheese that's ultimate gooey goodness. Add a squeeze of lemon, slip in a splash of salsa, and ooh.

Remember, too, that this excursion can remain your little secret. You won't get caught. There are no receipts to mark your trail -- El Tepeyac only takes cash.

El Tlacoyo

A fling with El Tlacoyo takes more guts. In fact, marrow guts are a prominent item on the menu here, featured as filling in soft tacos and burros.

Opened two months ago as a partner to its 2-year-old sister in Tempe, El Tlacoyo features the cuisine of Hidalgo, a state in east-central Mexico. My encyclopedia tells me that Hidalgo is famous "because of its delicious meals such as barbecue, mixiotes (meat dipped in chili sauce), chinicuiles (red worms) and escamoles (spawn of ant)." No, I haven't any clue what red worms or spawn of ant tastes like, and frankly, no job can compel me to figure it out.

While you won't find worms or ants at this colorful restaurant, you will find daredevil eats like cheese crisp with brain, cactus soup, pork stomach tacos, beef head burros, head cheese tortas and barbecued goat.

The novelty's certainly not what we would expect from looking at the place, gaily done in bright green, yellow and pink, with piñatas hung from the ceiling and silk flowers in the alcoves.

But wait -- don't run away. A lot of this stuff is actually good, once you get past knowing what you're eating. Sometimes the greatest passions require the greatest risk, and there's a reason the eatery keeps busy.

El Tlacoyo's salsas are one reason. They're superb, mastering the art of fire without overwhelming the intense flavor. A searing red, thicker mild green and soupy pico de gallo practically dance on excellent, freshly made chips.

El Tlacoyo's soups are another factor. That cactus soup isn't anything odd, just a marvelous orange broth with a slightly bitter attitude from the addition of heaps of grilled nopal strips (think, tangy, slippery green pepper). The same broth supports sopas de hongas (mushroom soup), stocked with slices of canned fungi, onion, cilantro and big chunks of dried chipotle for a subtle spice that burns as it gangs up.

Seafood is equally fantastic here, particularly the pescado al mojo de ajo. Our waitress asks if I'd prefer a more manageable fillet presentation, but no, I want the real deal, a whole fried fish, complete with head, tail, skin and bones. It's not the easiest to eat, digging among needle-thin bones and checking again before swallowing, but the result is worth it. Tilapia, our featured fish today, is sweet and fine-textured, gently dunked in bubbling oil and topped with a flurry of roasted garlic bits. In authentic fashion, the plate is finished with frozen but fine French fries, a pretty fan of lemon and tomato slices, white corn tortillas, beans and rice.

You won't find huarache too often on local menus -- perhaps because, to gringos like me, the word means shoe. Sometimes, huaraches refer to enchiladas, but they're also another version of gorditas, and taste nothing of Nikes. Two thick corn patties are stuffed with creamy refried beans here, and grilled steak that's a bit chewy with fat and tendon but nicely seasoned. The whole thing's moistened with seriously spicy green chili sauce, dry, tangy queso, iceberg lettuce and chopped white onion.

More green sauce -- in the form of tomatillo -- swims atop tlacoyo, which is slabs of masa topped with queso fresco, white-meat chicken, sour cream, cilantro and onion. Hot and nourishing, tlacoyo is complete Mexican comfort food.

A torta is another soothing choice, stuffed with a choice of 12 fillings including pineapple, beef and guacamole, and ham. Turkey Tulancingo-style is my pick, but other than being named after a city in Hidalgo, Tulancingo refers to nothing spookier than white-meat bird plopped on a large bolillo (grilled buttery bun) smeared with refried beans, queso, tomatillo, lettuce and chopped onion, plus what seems to be a thin strip of masa.

Now, cheating should never harm anyone (or anything), and I must admit the fact that I'm the proud owner of a happy little pygmy goat causes spasms of guilt when I order El Tlacoyo's weekend special: barbacoa. It's barbecued goat, served by the pound, as a torta or soup, but I opt for what I figure consumes the least of the cute quadruped, a soft taco. I'm almost ashamed to report how much I enjoy the meat, mild, moist, barely gamy as it is, and smoother flavored than beef.

Not every impulsive dalliance is going to pay off, and marrow guts, for me, aren't the marrying kind. This is tripe, the lining of beef stomach, which even with the longest cooking never loses its toughness or gritty nature. I'm also not planning a repeat date with quesadillas con cesos, the aforementioned bite o' brain. The quesadilla itself is nice, folded into a pocket more like a crispy, greaseless empanada, but the plump gray matter smells like bad cabbage or sweaty fish and disturbs with a Playdoh texture. These aren't the haute brain bits doused in beurre noir (browned butter) as made famous by the French.

Perhaps I've been spoiled by El Tlacoyo's Triple-X tricks, but enchiladas suddenly seem like a waste of time. Loose corn tortillas are stuffed with chicken breast, sauced with sleepy red chili and paired with orange rice and nondescript beans.

Though El Tlacoyo has a good number of familiar favorites, experimentation on this level isn't for amateurs. People too shy to come out in public and try such dishes might want to start by looking at pictures in magazines -- in the privacy of their own homes.

Variety is the spice of life, is it not? And how will you ever know what turns you on, unless you try a little bit of it all?

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