Tex-Mex wimps would be well-advised to stick with the yellow cheese dishes at Ixtapa.

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Tex-Mex wimps would be well-advised to stick with the yellow cheese dishes at Ixtapa.

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Debbie and I liked the less exotic squash-blossom version, but Franklin's guacamole wasn't quite defrosted; it tasted more like an avocado sorbet.

Turned on by Esquada's basso, Debbie took his recommendation for camarones borrachos: shrimp cooked in an oddball — but tasty, it turned out — concoction of orange juice, beer, paprika and wine. The sauce, vividly orange but watery, was heavier on brew than on citrus, but Debbie greedily ate the crustaceans with soft slices of fresh avocado.

I couldn't resist ordering the Steak Ranchero, if only because the menu description ended with a command in capital letters: DON'T MISS IT! When it arrived, the beef slices had been sautéed in some mysterious special sauce and jalapeño slices — it was pleasant enough but didn't live up to its marching orders.

Esquada decided on pollo al chipotle for Franklin, who took one taste and gasped for water. It's a fiery number, all right, with sautéed chicken, broccoli and carrots in a smoked-chili cream sauce. I thought it was excellent, but Franklin sulked: "I wish I had ordered a burrito."

When I returned a few nights later with Bob, Richard and Linda, I warned them that Esquada's kitchen wasn't sheepish about cooking with those chili peppers. Duly prepared, we started far too ambitiously with a big platter of starters. The Ixtapa Sampler was really more of a meal than a presupper snack. After putting away a few beef-filled fried taquitos, pieces of achiote-marinated chicken and broiled sirloin asada, we were almost too full to tackle dinners. But who wants to stop at a sampler?

Bob wanted a burrito smothered in melted cheese and, luckily, Esquada wasn't in the house that night to talk him out of ordering one. The rest of us agreed to try things that we rarely see in other Mexican restaurants. Linda ordered the camarones al Nopal — shrimp cooked with cactus and chipotle peppers. Richard ignored the menu's warning ("SPICY!") and chose the Steak Ixtapa.

When our server brought out the meals (on plates nearly as big as hubcaps), Linda took one bite of the shrimp dish and nearly screamed. "It's too hot," she said, fanning her tongue with her hand. I traded her my dinner — a mellow chile verde in a mild tomatilla sauce — and quite enjoyed the combination of shrimp, onion and green strips of cooked cactus. It wasn't too fiery for my palate, but Richard's sliced steak was. The carne charred my tongue, and Richard nibbled on it gingerly.

"They should ask patrons how spicy they want their dinners," Linda said. "I mean, the food is wonderful if you like it really hot."

Bob, meanwhile, was focused on his Deluxe Burrito Manadero, the traditional Tex-Mex burrito made with ground beef and beans in a soft flour tortilla and covered with a bubbling blanket of you know what. "It's very good," Bob said. "This is my kind of Mexican."

To cool down our taste buds, we sampled a couple of Ixtapa's terrific nondairy ice cream creations. "Instead of milk, we use atole," Esquada explained to me later. "It's the cornstarch water left after you cook the masa for tamales." The flour-and-water atole and a chocolate-flavored variation are better known south of the border as beverages, but Esquada uses them as the main ingredients for the creamy frozen dessert.

"It's more like a frozen mousse," Linda said. She marveled at the consistency of the vanilla version, which actually tasted like a buttery caramel. The chocolate ice cream was even better — served on a cookie crust, it was like a frozen mousse cake.

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