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Viva Baja 

by Susan Hamilton & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & s my family and I pulled up to Tecate Grill at the Shadle Center on a recent weekend evening, we noticed that just about everyone leaving the restaurant was toting take-home containers -- large ones. This is always a good sign.





Tecate may be best known as a Mexican beer, but it's also the name of the quiet border town in Baja California where the brew is made. Accordingly, palm trees, bamboo plants and thatched roofs punctuate Tecate Grill's tropical-themed d & eacute;cor. Southwest art and bright colors complete the borderland tone.





Though the restaurant was relatively busy, we were seated right away, and our server appeared at our window-side table within a few minutes. Immediately ravenous, we ordered the Mojo de Ajo appetizer ($10.50) and staved our hunger with a basket of tri-colored chips and a zingy salsa until the dish of saut & eacute;ed shrimp and mushrooms arrived. The buttery, spicy and garlicky sauce complemented the perfectly cooked shrimp and made me forget the coconut prawns we'd almost ordered. In our state of hunger, we had considered ordering the Botanero sampler platter but thought its chicken skewers, spring rolls, quesadillas and fruit salad would make it a meal in itself.





Tecate's menu is extensive. It's also touted as having a more Southwestern focus, with wider variety and healthier food than its corporate sibling, the western Washington-based Azteca restaurants. Tecate's also known for not serving ground beef or refried beans. In other words, it's got quality Mexican food.





So, what to order? The meat and seafood entrees sounded interesting. Baja fish tacos, pecan-crusted crab cakes and Santa Fe steak all tempted us. But we were here for Mexican food, so we focused on the south-of-the-border entrees. I almost ordered the tour de Mexico's carne asada, chile relleno and enchilada, but I chose the chicken canyon fajitas ($13). My daughter couldn't decide between the Santa Fe goat cheese-stuffed chicken with its pine-nut cilantro pesto and the popular adovo chicken pasta ($12), but popularity (and pasta) won out. My husband almost ordered the guacamole burger but decided to try the veggie burrito ($10) instead.





While waiting for our entrees, we consumed most of another basket of chips between us. (Note to self: Don't go to a sit-down restaurant when famished.)





I love fajitas because the presentation is striking -- and I can play with my food. The platter of grilled chicken and saut & eacute;ed veggies was still sizzling as our waitress brought it to our table. Southwest rice, black beans in a tomato-tortilla cup, salsa, guacamole, red-leaf lettuce (not iceberg, mind you) and shredded cheese filled another platter. I eagerly took the warm tortillas from their container and filled them with tidbits from the two platters. The meat was slightly rubbery, but all in all, the fajitas and accompaniments made a satisfying combination.





My daughter's chicken pasta proved to be a successful dish. Grilled chicken, veggies and penne pasta were tossed with a spicy, red pepper cream sauce that was flavorful but not too thick or rich. The garnishes -- pico de gallo, Parmesan cheese and broccoli -- were nice touches. My husband's veggie burrito was humongous. The oversized tomato tortilla was stuffed with paella rice, rancho beans, red onion, zucchini, carrots, red and green peppers, then smothered in melted cheese, salsa and red-leaf lettuce. This entr & eacute;e was colorful and moist, but just too big to pick up and eat with your hands.





We could have ordered cervezas to accompany our meal, but instead indulged in hand-shaken strawberry margaritas to make our Southwest experience complete. The drinks were fruity and refreshing, as was our daughter's Red Rock (strawberry/prickly pear) lemonade. Service throughout our meal was quick and efficient without being fussy.





Even though we were by now more than stuffed, we couldn't resist dessert. Deep-fried ice cream ($4.25) begged to be tried. It was another dramatic presentation and a sweet treat. Mounds of ice cream covered in a crunchy coating were drizzled with strawberry and chocolate sauces, topped with whipped cream and surrounded with cinnamon sugar-dusted tortilla triangles.





Just like the diners who had preceded us that evening, we emerged from the Tecate Grill toting our own large take-home containers. And the food was almost as good reheated the next day.





Tecate Grill, 2503 W. Wellesley Ave. #C, is open Sun-Thurs 11 am-9 pm, Fri-Sat 11 am-10 pm. Call 327-7817.

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