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Gourmet Ole at Javier's

The restaurant's creative flair is evident in the house specials.

May 25, 2000|TOM VASICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you were to name Orange County's 10 best restaurants, almost certainly none would be Mexican. But you could easily list little places where you can get terrific carne asada and enchiladas.

What's up with this?

For whatever reasons, scarcely any of our Mexican restaurants aspire to be fine-dining restaurants. Places that seek to create and innovate. Places that combine high-quality food with professional service.

Of all the O.C. Mexican restaurants I've been to, Javier's Cantina & Grill comes the closest to doing this, and with an impressively festive atmosphere to boot. Javier Sosa opened his Laguna Beach restaurant five years ago and has achieved a rare popularity--it's a favorite of locals and tourists. This loud, crowded restaurant, festooned with tropical plants, has one of the "swingingest" bar scenes in town. Even so, the food is the best part.

Because Mexican restaurants typically offer an endless supply of free chips and salsa, they rarely have much of an appetizer list. Javier's features some ceviches and shrimp cocktails, but mostly, appetizer time is nacho time.

But Javier's does serve one appetizer that may make you forget about nachos for a good while. Queso fundido is a dip of melted Jack cheese mixed with sauteed onions, mushrooms and fatty chorizo. In short, it's not exactly heart-healthful food, but once you scoop some up with a warm corn tortilla, all is right in the world.

In its main dishes, Javier's achieves a level of quality you rarely find in our Mexican restaurants. These dishes are a mix of familiar items such as carne asada and carnitas and more ambitious seafood dishes such as scallops Mazatlan and a festive brocheta del mar.

I test a Mexican restaurant by ordering the chile verde. It's a deceptively simple dish, and most places don't understand that the tomatillo sauce should be a bit sweet as well as tart, and the cubes of pork must be tender. Javier's gets it exactly right.

Enchilada lovers may beg to differ, because they will be very pleased with Javier's enchiladas. The same tomatillo sauce covers the enchiladas de cangrejo and de mariscos, the first stuffed with crab and the second with crab and shrimp. Both fillings are sauteed in garlic and onions and the tamales are topped with avocado slices.

If you really want something out of the ordinary, at least around these parts, give the enchiladas de mole verde a try. This spicy traditional sauce--so temperamental that very few Mexican restaurants can do it justice--is given a boost of poblano peppers to create a rich, thick, immensely flavorful effect. It's mouth-watering, and the chicken enchiladas it covers aren't bad, either. You can also order chicken breast served in mole verde.

Javier's gives a solid presentation of classics such as carnitas, but the creative bent of the place comes out in the house specials, especially the seafood dishes. The most memorable of these is brocheta del mar, a skewer packed with swordfish, scallops and prawns along with onions, mushrooms and peppers. It's an amazingly pleasing dish; the seafood tastes extremely fresh. The brocheta comes with a tangy tomato salsa and the accompanying white rice and black beans add a nice, light touch.

At this place, you have a tough choice to make between shrimp and scallops. The scallops are served Mazatlan-style, sauteed in garlic and butter with a chipotle sauce. It's an interesting idea, this blend of garlic and hot, smoky pepper framing the subtle scallop flavor, even though there's just a bit too much butter for my taste.

So when it comes down to it, I prefer the camarones rancheros, large shrimp sauteed with garlic, pasilla peppers and onions. It has a cleaner flavor, and I particularly like the last-minute addition of raw tomatoes.

And I heartily recommend the carne tampiquena. It's a thin-cut steak topped with grilled chiles and onions. The steak may not be as good as you'd find in a top-level steakhouse such as Arnie Morton's, but it's still very good, flanked by a cheese enchilada in mole verde and a first-rate chicken taquito filled with a solid portion of moist chicken breast. Refried beans and guacamole finish off this massive meal.

I'd recently had the mole verde enchiladas, so I asked for a substitution, the best item Javier's makes: the green chile tamale. This is a dessert tamale of practically overwhelming sweetness and corn flavor (there's a slice of green chile in it). I guarantee you've never had any sweet corn tamale quite like this, at least anywhere near Laguna Beach.

BE THERE

Javier's Cantina & Grill, 480 S. Coast Highway, Laguna Beach. (949) 494-1239. Open Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Appetizers from $6 to $10; entrees from $10 to $19.

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