by Susan Hamilton

When it's cold outside, you gotta turn up the heat. And what better way to spice up your mid-winter doldrums than with red-hot Mexican food? Two new restaurants on the South Hill will do just that.

Mi Casa offers authentic taqueria-style Mexican cuisine. Owners and chefs Ken and Angelica Selvidge braid the influences of their backgrounds into their offerings. Angelica draws on the rich history of her roots in San Patricio, south of Puerto Vallarta on Mexico's western coast. Ken brings his own brand of western cooking from Texas by way of San Francisco. Three years at the helm of Cambria Catering has also given Ken much experience in the culinary world.

"We're featuring rustic, traditional Mexican food without embellishments," Ken says. "It's fresh, quality food that's authentic."

Mi Casa's tacos are prepared Guadalajara-style, like those found at the taco stands and restaurants in Jalisco. Served on small, freshly made corn tortillas, these tacos are served with chopped onion, pungent cilantro and choice of meat -- grilled beef or chicken, fried or Adobo-seasoned pork, seasoned ground beef, or pork in red or green sauce.

These are flavor-packed little handfuls. The carne asada taco I tried was layered in tastes and textures. Earthy undertones of corn contrasted with the savory, spicy beef, the bright tastes of cilantro and the onion. The roasted tomato salsa gave it kick, and a vibrant guacamole added its own richness.

At Mi Casa, you can also find an "authentic twist on the quesadilla." Synchronizada-style mulitas can be filled with carne asada, Adobo pork, chorizo, shrimp ranchero or grilled onions, peppers and mushrooms. Mi Casa's aguas frescas (freshly made, infused waters) come in hibiscus, orchata (rice with a cinnamon tang) and fresh fruit flavors.

The contemporary d & eacute;cor at Mi Casa is a soothing blend of cantaloupe, sage and indigo colors, punctuated with photos of Mexican life and strung with bright papel picado. Saucy world music and an area with a couch and large plants are warm touches.

Mi Casa Taqueria, at 901 W. 14th Ave. (at Lincoln) is open Sunday-Wednesday from 11 am-9 pm and Thursday-Saturday from 11 am-11 pm. Call 455-5155.

Fiesta Mexicana also features the cuisine of Guadalajara. Owners and brothers-in-law Travis Glasser and Miguel Amador have transformed the former Taco Time on Grand with the vibrant colors of sunny Mexico. This restaurant is a family affair -- with both families working on everything from the remodeling to the cooking and serving.

Fiesta Mexicana's d & eacute;cor is inviting, with its polished tile floor, splashing fountain and vivid orange walls hung with colorful parrots, pottery and folk art, as well as lively Mexican music. Seated in the dining room, you'll think you've been whisked away to south of the border.

Chef Miguel Amador utilizes family recipes and his experience at area Mexican restaurants in creating authentic, high-quality dishes. The extensive menu includes such favorites as fajitas, enchiladas, tacos, burritos and tostadas. More exotic fare, such as chile Colorado, chicken mole and camarones al mojo de ajo (prawns with mushroom and garlic sauce) are also served. Salads, soups and American staples (steak and burgers) round out the menu. Lunch specials are served daily and there is a full-service bar for margaritas, sangria, Mexican beer and mixed drinks.

Fiesta Mexicana's tamales are the real thing. Fresh corn masa is filled with picadillo (shredded pork) and steamed in a real corn husk. The spicy pork complements the subtle flavor of the corn. Miguel uses hotter poblano chiles rather than the milder Anaheim variety in his chile rellenos. The sweet chile is roasted, stuffed with ranchero cheese, breaded and fried. This is a taste sensation that will have you coming back for more, with its blend of sweetness, heat, gooey cheese and crunchy breading.

Fiesta Mexicana, at 1227 S. Grand, is open Sunday-Thursday from 11 am-10 pm and Friday-Saturday from 11 am-11 pm. Call 455-7117.

Three Guys and a Pizza -- "We have the only authentic Chicago-style deep-dish pizza in the Inland Northwest," says owner Liam Gubbins of his newly opened pizzeria, Windy City Pizza.

Gubbins and his partners Doug Johnson and Edric Hernandez are from Chicago, where they learned how to make the unique pizza. Its thick, soft dough is covered with a special-recipe sauce, lots of cheese and high-quality ingredients, like pepperoni, sun-dried tomato, fresh garlic, chicken and mushrooms. Thin-crust pizza, special pizzas and salad are also available.

"We have a deep-dish that weighs four pounds," Liam proclaims. "It's not just a thick crust."

Is this for real? We had to check it out ourselves. The deep-dish pizza is substantial; it's no lightweight. The chewy crust is more than thick. Savory sauce and oddles of cheese cover the pie. The "veggie lovers" special we tried was full of mushrooms, onions, fresh tomato, garlic and green pepper bursting with flavor.

"This is a pizza that does Chicago justice," declared one of our taste-testers. "It's not a wannabe pizza."

On to the thin crust pie. We found this pizza's crust to be pleasantly salty, covered with a spicy sauce and melt-in-your-mouth cheese. The chicken topping was moist and added a nice texture. This is definitely not your regular pizza; it's a real pizza pie.

The Liberty Lake eatery sports Chicago-style d & eacute;cor, photos of famous Chicagoans and memorabilia from the Windy City. Take-out and area delivery are available.

Windy City Pizza, at 21724 E. Mission Ave., is open Sunday-Thursday from 11 am-10 pm and Friday-Saturday from 11 am-11 pm. Call 892-9498.

Culinary Showdown -- Foodies, gastronomes, the health-conscious and fans of the Food Network's The Iron Chef show can now watch a live Inland Northwest version of a mystery box competition on February 11. Four local chefs comprise two teams that will face off in the competition. Chef Danielle Bricheno of the Davenport's Palm Court, Chef Howard Bateman of the Globe Bar and Grille, Chef Gabriel Cruz from Beyond Hope and Chef David Hill of Hill's Someplace Else will battle for the title of most tasty, heart-healthy and kid-friendly dish.

Dave Neihaus, the voice of the Seattle Mariners, will narrate the play-by-play action. Dietician Patty Seebeck will add colorful and educational commentary, and local high school cheerleaders will cheer the chefs on. "The Grand Slam Cook-off" is presented by the Heart Institute Community Partners and Tidyman's stores as part of Heart Month.

The Grand Slam Cook-off on Tuesday, Feb. 11, at 7 pm at the Met. Tickets are $7 per person and can be purchased at Tidyman's and Cook's Dream.

Wine Dinners for Sweethearts -- Inland Northwesterners have two opportunities to wine and dine their sweeties come the middle of next month. On Thursday, Feb. 13, at 6:30 pm, the Italian Kitchen hosts a Valentine's Eve wine dinner, with commentary by Vino's John Allen. The romantic, candlelit, four-course meal features mushroom ravioli, rack of lamb with rosemary Dijon crust and crepes with Amaretti zabaglione accompanied by five fine Italian wines. Tables of two, four or six can be reserved for $69 per person. Call 838-1229.

Arbor Crest's Cliff House is the setting for a special Valentine's evening dinner on Feb. 14 at 6 pm. The four-course meal highlights Arbor Crest's award-winning wines and choice of crab-stuffed Alaskan salmon or grilled beef tenderloin and heart-shaped chocolate dessert. Reservations are required for the $130 per couple dinner. Call 927-9463.

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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