Cafe Reviews

The Pueblo Incident

I don't own fur and I don't use aerosol. Why, then, would I ever eat alligator fajitas? This is the question I ask myself when the waiter at Los Mayas announces today's luncheon special.

"Alligator?" I query tentatively. "Like, real alligator?"
"Yes, ma'am," our waiter replies solemnly. "It's real."
Alligator fajitas. I feel like weeping. Yeah, I know they're only protected now and no longer endangered. And yeah, I know they're raised in captivity on alligator farms specifically for handbags and restaurants. Still.

(Question: Would I eat a bald eagle burro or black-footed ferret enchilada simply because it was available? Answer: No.)

Don't worry. I didn't express my views on wildlife conservation to our waiter. He is a nice enough young man, the kind of resort worker whose pallor tells you he has just escaped some northern clime. He is well-meaning. He tries hard. He has trouble pronouncing words like Oaxacan.

No, I keep my opinions about alligators to myself.
Which isn't hard, considering that my faithful dining accomplice Goat and I comprise one of maybe four occupied tables in the restaurant. Oh, there are other people eating at Los Mayas today--but they've chosen to lunch outside on the patio. Many of them are dressed in Southwest resortwear: cactus-studded sweat shirts, brightly colored golf slacks, coyote tee shirts. It's hot and dry to these people, though the sun is obscured by clouds and the temperature hovers near sixty.

Goat and I live here. We opt for the comfort of inside.
In preparation for my visit to Donna Nordin's Tucson-originated restaurant, I've been salivating over a copy of the menu for at least a week. Boy, everything sounds good! Roast duck with pumpkin seeds, turkey breast in mole sauce, grilled lamb chops with toasted pine nuts. What I didn't know is I've been perusing the dinner menu. The lunch menu we're presented with is scaled down, lower priced and less exciting, alligator fajitas aside.

Our waiter reads us the lunch specials. When he looks up, we ask him if it's possible to order items from the dinner menu. Hmmmm, he says, he's not sure. He goes to check with the chef and returns to report we can order dinner appetizers, if we want.

We want.
While we munch on utilitarian chips and snappy, fresh salsa, we take a look around. The interior of Los Mayas is decidedly playful. Walls are painted tan with blue above to represent pueblo and sky. Folk-inspired paintings and masks embellish this imaginary dwelling. But while the Mexican-tile floor helps cement the theme, the ceiling undoes it: Black-painted insulation and air vents point up the staginess of the whole thing.

Our soup arrives about the time we polish off the tomato-rich salsa. Goat's spicy sopa de elote tastes of dark green poblano peppers and is garnished with a dollop of sour cream. My sopa de lima carries the flavors of grilled chicken and lime, balanced with tomato, onion and peppers. Tortilla strips add crunch. Though the chicken-based soup is lovely to see and taste, it's just not caliente enough for a fanatic like me.

We keep our poor waiter busy. He brings out our dinner appetizers next. The ceviche is an upscale version: bay scallops marinated in lime, tomatoes, onions, avocado and cilantro. The tiny scallops are fleshy and cool on the tongue, and the salsa marinade quite zesty. Our appetizer shrimp are dotted with green-and-red-pepper confetti and come curled on a torn lettuce bed. The shrimp are firm and fresh, but the "Southwestern spices" fall into the So What category for me. Though they're pretty, these camarones are dull.

When was the last time you ate Mexican food without being warned about hot plates? When our waiter merely tells us to enjoy our meal, we get suspicious. Goat touches his plate. "It's not hot," he exclaims.

"You're kidding," I say. But Goat is right. The plates are not hot.
Unfortunately, we soon discover some of our food isn't hot, either--both literally and figuratively speaking.

Goat's combination plate looks gorgeous: thin-rolled chorizo taquito topped with sour cream and guacamole; splayed poblano pepper stuffed with chicken, corn and cheese, crowned with salsa; whole black beans; green-tinged Mexican rice. The trouble is, the poblano pepper isn't even tepid, it's so cool. And I'd be amazed to discover any chorizo in the taquito--it tastes like a potato chip to me.

My enchiladas de mole, beans and rice come in separate dishes stacked on a single plate. I am reminded of a cafeteria. The enchiladas are crusted over with browned cheese and give off steam when I cut into them. The mole sauce tastes mostly of spice--I strain to detect any chocolate. Worst yet, the rice and beans are stone cold.

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Penelope Corcoran