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South Coast Meets the Southwest

Z'Tejas offers a melting pot of flavors in Costa Mesa: Cajun, Mexican and more.

November 15, 2001|MARTIN BOOE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Z'Tejas is a new restaurant in Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza. OK, I hablo a good deal of espanol, so I knew "Tejas" means Texas. But what about the "Z"? Turns out it's a marketing concoction (Z'Tejas is an ever-expanding chain) and doesn't mean much of anything.

But you've got to admit, it adds flair, and flair is something Z'Tejas has plenty of, cuisine-wise. Think of Texas as a melting pot for Mexican, Cajun and Southwestern cooking.

The restaurant has a pleasant, clubhouse feel to it, with spacious booths and comfortably dispersed tables. It's done in a subdued Southwestern motif, with burnished yellow walls, turquoise accents and an open-beamed ceiling. The thick, padded carpet soaks up a lot of noise, so the decibel level is kept under check, making conversation easy.

There's also a long bar equipped with a TV set, usually tuned to sports, and a charming patio. The waiters seem barely old enough to get into an R-rated movie, and the service can be a bit uneven, but it's awfully friendly.

Z'Tejas takes its tequila seriously, and it has a formidable roster of premium selections from which to choose.

Following suit, the margaritas are the best I've had in a long time. The basic lime juice model is spun into several versions of varying sweetness, and they all taste of fresh citrus--melded, of course, with other potions suspended in ice so finely pulverized you'd think they'd been blended in an atom-smasher. The emphasis is on quality rather than quantity.

Unlike the Big Gulp cocktails so many margarita joints are serving these days, these come in comparatively sane rations, which ultimately makes them more enjoyable.

They do pack a wallop. Fortunately, though, you can call upon a number of appetizers to mitigate, or delay, any inordinate silliness. Here's what I like about the appetizers: They hit all the right tickle spots in your appetite center without leaving you feeling like you've eaten a lot of junk food.

It may be stretching things to call the hot skillet of slightly sweet cornbread an amuse-bouche, but that's what comes to your table when you arrive. It's flecked with corn kernels and wonderfully moist, with a firm crust.

If you order guacamole, you get a fresh, chunky type served with delicate, nongreasy corn chips.

My favorite starter, though, is the catfish beignets. "Beignets" is not the name I'd have given these--instead of the New Orleans-style fritter pastry it implies, they're cloaked in peppered cornmeal, which gives them a pleasingly gritty bite. The catfish within is succulent and buttery in texture. I just hate to invoke the notion of "kicking it up a notch," but that's what the side of tangy jalapeno tartar sauce does.

The crawfish crab cakes are good too. They're coarsely breaded and fried to a deep brown, and this armor of breading preserves the moistness of the seafood, which is fresh and flavorful. The pork-stuffed cast-iron skillet dumplings are one of a few nods in the direction of Asian fusion, and they're not bad, although a friend described them as a "gridlock of flavor"--too many tastes competing for attention.

Fish tacos, anyone? Here catfish resurfaces, though this selection is a taco only in an abstract sense. I'd call it halfway between a wrap and an eggroll bundled up with julienne carrots and chunks of avocado. But let's not be stodgy; they have an engagingly crunchy bite and they go well with the pungent ginger sauce.

Though the quality of the appetizers is impressively consistent, other categories are less even. The "voodoo" tuna, for example, sounds like a good idea. But when I had it, the fish was rather sinewy, and the black peppercorn vinaigrette and "spicy soy mustard" served on the side got into a slugfest of competing flavors. Neither prevailed nor particularly enhanced the dish, and the accompanying rice was chewy and dry.

On the other hand, the grilled ruby trout salad is a delight, especially if you're eating light. The delicate slices of fish are almost mousse-like in texture, and the bed of mixed greens is full of candied walnuts and bits of goat cheese. The diablo chicken pasta is a good bet too. It's slices of grilled chicken breast doused with a chipotle garlic sauce so packed with flavor it deserves to be so rich and creamy.

Another item that's better in concept than execution is the Sonoran crab-stuffed shrimp. Rolling these plump shrimp in thin tortilla slices and then deep-frying them is a nice idea, but this time around at least, the shrimp are a bit overdone. Those tortilla strips do provide a delectably crunchy exterior. But even if they weren't overcooked, it's hard to see how they'd do anything but stomp on the taste of the shrimp and crab.

If you're in the mood for heartier food, try the smothered filet mignon. The meat is top-notch and they'll cook it truly medium rare if you want. It's generously ladled with an assertive wild mushroom sauce; one of my friends thought it a bit strong, but I liked it a lot. In a similar category is the ancho pork tenderloin, mildly spiced slices arranged around a hill of garlic mashed potatoes. The potatoes and the otherwise flavorful rosemary-infused demi-glaze seem to have sat under a heat lamp a bit too long, but the pork was triumphantly juicy.

Z'Tejas is moderately expensive. Appetizers run $5.75 to $8.25 and entrees $7.95 to $17.95

Z'Tejas, South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa. (714) 979-7469. Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The bar stays open one hour later.

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