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We had been dipping tortilla chips into a mild salsa roja before I asked the waiter if there was anything with a little more heat. He returned with a dish of dark, warm salsa brava, which had a nice, smoky flavor but no fire. Come to think of it, none of the dishes I sampled here were particularly spicy. But aren't hot and spicy dishes associated with Satan? I glanced guiltily toward the statue of St. Francis just as our dinners arrived. The meals in this restaurant may be virtuously seasoned, but at least they're decadently abundant in rich sauces, masses of melted cheese and wildly generous portions.
Bob raved about this restaurant's signature dish, Los Mejores de la Casa ("The Best of the House"). It's a fancy title for a traditional Midwestern combo meal: bacon-wrapped beef tenderloin medallions and bacon-wrapped shrimp -- though, in a nod to Southwestern cuisine, the crustaceans were stuffed with jalapeño and cheese. Both the beef and the shrimp were tender and juicy; it's no surprise that this is the best-selling entrée in the joint. I ordered the Chile Manzanillo, a roasted poblano crammed with crabmeat, scattered with shrimp and scallops, then drenched in a luscious lobster sauce.
Jennifer was more restrained with her meal, three thick enchiladas stuffed with avocado and sumptuously laden with the same array of shrimp, scallops, peppers and mushrooms that had been ladled on my fat pepper -- hmm, maybe culinary creativity isn't a strong point here. She finished only half of it, and our devoted waiter packed it all up for her with an extra bag of chips and salsa. We couldn't decide if he was flirting or just being nice.
But everyone is nice at Abuelo's, from the cheery hostesses to the observant busboys, which is probably another reason why this new restaurant is so popular. The night I dined with my friend Jeanne and her two teenage daughters, there was never an empty glass or unfilled metal bowl of chips on the table. Jeanne thought the place was gorgeous and the food fabulous. When her combination dinner, the Monterrey, arrived on an oversized platter ("It weighs 10 pounds with nothing on it," the server told us), she was overwhelmed. "This could easily feed a family of six," she said, taking inventory of the sour-cream-and-chicken enchilada, the avocado enchilada and the chicken ranchero and spinach versions, along with a taco and a cheese-filled chile relleno.
Twelve-year-old Alexandra was more critical: "There's way too much melted cheese on the quesadilla," she said, looking down at her plate, "and the refried beans have either been fried too many times or left out too long, so they've become an inedible paste."
It was true: The beans were a bust. But I was thrilled to see her incredibly fussy older sister actually eating a beef enchilada without finding some ghastly flaw in its preparation. For my own meal, I enjoyed the fresh-tasting cilantro-lime soup (with fat chunks of chicken, pozole and lots of cilantro), but the pescado en hoja, a flaky hunk of tilapia, was drenched -- rather than lightly glazed -- with a honey-lime sauce that was too heavy-handed on the honey. It was so sweet that I didn't need dessert.
"Not even our dessert nachos?" the waiter asked brightly. He proceeded to describe a jumble of cinnamon chips, caramel, praline ice cream and whipped topping. "Perhaps another time," Jeanne said diplomatically, "and not after we've eaten too much. "