It took the Hopi nearly 1,000 years to cultivate blue corn. Now some 20th-Century wisenheimer has gone and put it in a tortilla chip. The nerve.
South of Santa Fe, a restaurant that has just opened in Orange, serves up the corn and plenty of it, plus lots more of these mind-shattering innovations, including goat cheese quesadillas, duck tamales and tequila ice cream. The thing is, the best dishes at this restaurant end up being the simplest ones. Maybe the management should pay less attention to marketing and more attention to taste.
The restaurant is the latest child in the El Cholo family of restaurants, a hugely successful company that owns, among other things, the highly competent Sonora Cafe in downtown Los Angeles. The decor is cheerful, busy and bizarre, with weird little artifacts, acrylic paintings, neon shapes and custom-made sculptures, not to mention a ceiling with more shades of pastel than the Painted Desert.
The entrance, a white adobe arch, faces a floor-mounted mobile splashed with a gaudily colored cowboy-and-Indian motif. The theme-restaurant concept is so apparent that I was mildly disappointed when nobody showed up in an armadillo suit to take me to my table. At least the hostess was wearing a string tie.
Once seated, a basket of blue corn madeleines are brought (in spite of the cosmetic surgery, they're terrific), and a bubbly waitress appears to offer you a Cuervo 1800 margarita, which is poured out of one of those 1930s cocktail shakers that William Powell always happened to have lying around. Chips and salsa are complimentary, but you have to request them. By all means do. Chips come in three colors, and the salsa is delightfully chunky. Ditto a spicy guacamole.
So far, everything is blue chip, and foodwise, almost exactly like any other Mexican restaurant. They didn't really specify how far south of Santa Fe, did they? Then comes the menu, developed by the company's Blair Salisbury, a former rodeo cowboy whose boots are displayed on a nearby wall, and it's . . . eccentric. There are lots of old standbys all right, but there are also items that would have kept even Pancho Villa on his side of the border--such items as confetti jicama salad and pineapple banana salsa.
It's not that these ideas are bad, it's just that they're sort of just there . The kitchen makes a real effort to introduce interesting primary products of the Southwest, but these are often used gratuitously, thrown in so that they don't really make the dishes work any better. Sauces are of the pureed variety (they must need a separate electric bill just for the food processor) and full of the requisite amounts of color and texture. Taste seems to be a lower priority.
Other inventions fail on their own merits. Smoked tomato soup might have been wonderful, for example, but there's a yellow pepper cream swirled in, and you can't taste the tomato. An appetizer called black bean cake looks nice but turns out to be dry and lumpy. And duck tamales have barely any duck, although they are in one of the better sauces, a beige number flavored by guajillo chilies. You'd be better advised to stick with the more tried and true here, like the old El Cholo combinations or the superb fajitas.
When you do order the more creative dishes, though, expect something on the plate that you can like. Many sauces come with little cactus shapes floating around in them, and many of the homemade relishes are excellent. Hickory-smoked salmon, which comes in chunks instead of in slices and has a mild, woody aftertaste, is worth a go just for the tremendous tomatillo and corn relish served on the side of the plate. Crab and wild mushroom enchilada, which I found unnecessarily salty, is redeemed by a surprising sauce made from light cream and a healthy sprinkling of chipotle (smoked jalapeno peppers).
A few dishes are downright winners; an Anaheim chili stuffed with leeks and goat cheese, a generous, beautifully trimmed New York steak in an ancho chili sauce (made from dried poblano chilies), and a fresh swordfish in a smoked tomato, cilantro and lime salsa. If novelty bores you, then the El Cholo standbys are a good bet.
Desserts are original without being insipid. A flourless Ibarra chocolate cake with a tequila sabayon is a good idea, and the house lemon pie an even better one, with a tart and tangy filling and a buttery, flaky crust. A margarita-glazed cheesecake and a hazelnut and lemon cake also hit the mark, and there is an interesting collection of house-made ice creams: praline, tequila raisin and Spanish aniseed, all nicely flavored.
The kitchen at South of Santa Fe is, if nothing else, speedy. Service is pretty snappy as well. As soon as you finish one course, the next one appears. Service is also good fun: The waiters seem to enjoy the little gimmicks, and they are pleasant and enthusiastic about serving you.
And for once the house is firmly on the side of the customer. Remember the salty enchilada? Well, I barely hinted displeasure, and my waiter whisked the dish away to be inspected by a manager, who hurried over to apologize. When the check arrived, the waiter told us that to make up for the inconvenience, the appetizers we had eaten were compliments of the house.
As you have probably guessed, prices are reasonable. Appetizers start at $2.50 and run through $5, with occasional specials a bit higher, and there is a variety of side dishes and condiments from 50 cents up to $2. Dinners begin at $7.25, for the traditional Mexican specialties, and run through $13 for fresh fish. Desserts are from $2.75.
SOUTH OF SANTA FE 777 S. Main St., Orange.
Open daily for lunch and dinner. Full bar. Parking in lot. MasterCard, Visa, American Express accepted.