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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Marix Offers Nice Mix : Tex-Mex fare here is a comfortable blend of Mexico, California, New Mexico and Texas.

July 15, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

ENCINO — Marix Tex Mex Norte bills itself as a Tex-Mex cafe. This restaurant has its attractions, but "Tex-Mex" is not exactly what I'd call it.

I happened to eat my very first Mexican meal in Texas and I still recall that dusky red sauce, the heady scent of cumin and the rush of rich, heavy flavors. The Mexican cooking I became familiar with there is spicier, meatier and more complex than the Mexican food we're used to in California. The Mexican dishes on Marix's menu don't quite fit that description.

There are also non-Mexican dishes from the Texas repertoire, such as chili (make that Rufus Gomez chili) and chicken-fried steak. Altogether, though, I'd call this menu a comfortable blend including as much of California and New Mexico as of Texas and old Mexico.

The word "Norte" in the name refers to the fact that this is the San Fernando Valley cousin of the popular Marix cafes in West Hollywood and Pacific Palisades. Somehow, it manages to be the handsomest of the three. The interior is vast and airy, with the ambience of an unfinished rec room in a condo complex. A skylight dominates the main dining area.

One of the restaurant's main attractions is the glassed-in tortilla room beside the open kitchen. Behind the glass there is a real comal , the flat grill on which tortillas are cooked. You can depend on seeing a lone woman back there, busily turning out fresh corn tortillas. Order a few on the side, no matter what you're having. They're a lot more interesting than the greasy corn chips served to all patrons.

Before you get to that point, you'll probably want to flush out the summer heat with one of the restaurant's many specialty drinks. A couple of the best ones have absurdly risque names. Horny Margarita is made with Cuervo tequila, Cointreau and fresh lime juice. Safe Sex at the Beach, definitely for California surfers rather than Texas desert rats, is a slush-type drink based on peach schnapps.

I've enjoyed some of the appetizers immensely. Order the Marix sampler platter, and you get more than two people can handle. It's a big dish of chicken and beef chimichangas, flautas (flute-shaped corn tortillas rolled around a beefy filling), a quesadilla, black bean nachos, pico de gallo relish, guacamole and sour cream.

The ceviche is made with snapper, with a lot of lime and cilantro in the bite. Barbecued chicken pizza employs a fried flour tortilla for the crust, and it works surprisingly well. The topping of grilled chicken, barbecue sauce and smoked Gouda cheese almost melts into the tortilla, but without making it soggy. The only appetizer on this menu I'm not keen on is queso fundido , a cheese dip that's just too oily for my taste.

"Texican dinners," as the menu calls main dishes, are big portions, accompanied by good side dishes such as smoky charro beans and, for an additional $2, the restaurant's creamy Caesar. In the summer, grilled ears of corn are available at an extra charge. They're exactly like the elotes you can get on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles--ears of corn charred yellow-black and lightly brushed with butter.

One of the best Texican dinners is carne asada , a 10-ounce charbroiled New York steak grilled fork-tender and served with a delicious smoky chipotle pepper salsa. Shrimp diablo has the same chipotle salsa, plus sliced avocado, grilled onions and a mound of rice. Another fine dinner is the plato de carnitas , properly soft and flaky chunks of pork with the taste of onions and cilantro in the meat.

The barbecued baby-back ribs, though, are tough and not at all helped by a sticky, insipid sauce. "Chicken-fried chicken" is a bland, stodgily breaded chicken breast with no discernible country flavor.

Wrap up a meal with a dessert such as sizzling apple pie or "the ultimate hot fudge brownie sundae." The pie comes to the table sizzling like a Chinese steak, the attractions including a rich crust, a scoop of Haagen-Dazs vanilla and a good brandy sauce. The brownie really is pretty close to ultimate: firm and fudgy, with a topping of hand-whipped cream, Haagen-Dazs and a good, bittersweet fudge sauce.

Where and When

What: Marix Tex Mex Norte, 16240 Ventura Blvd., Encino.

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 4 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.

Suggested dishes: Barbecued chicken pizza, $7.25; ceviche, $4.50; carne asada , $11.25; plato de carnitas , $8.95; sizzling apple pie, $4.25.

Price: Dinner for two, $20 to $35. Full bar. Valet parking on side. All major cards.

Call: (818) 789-5400.

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