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Smart Mouth
In Mexico City, Spicy, Not Dicey

By Gary Lee
The Washington Post
Sunday, February 1, 1998; Page E02

At La Valentina, where the elite of Mexico City clamor for tables, they serve up a mean cilantro soup and a chicken baked in a mole sauce so refined it made me want to holler. Across town in La Opera, house specialties include bull's testicles and avocados filled with baby eel. In Fanu, a lunch favorite of housewives, the fare is more tame -- melt-in-your-mouth pastries and dishes such as chicken baked in banana leaves.

Recent incidents of violence against tourists in the Mexican capital may have placed a damper on street life, but it has done nothing to stop the pursuit of spirited eating taking place across the city. During a recent week-long visit, I threw myself headlong into the wide range of kitchens there. This is in contrast to past Mexico trips, during which fears of facing either Montezuma's revenge or a monotonous array of tacos and enchiladas made me a less than enthusiastic diner. Both fears turned out to be unjustified this time out.

For one thing, Mexico City restaurants specializing in Mexican food offer a far broader range of cuisines than their stateside counterparts. Many feature pre-Hispanic recipes, such as mole (a popular sauce made from chilies and chocolate) and barbacoa (lamb wrapped in cactus leaves and salted); they are as common as beans, rice and taco dishes.

For another thing, Mexico City's sanitation and food handling systems are not nearly as precarious as they are in other parts of the country. Incidents of stomach virus among U.S. travelers have always been less frequent there than in the provinces. Following sensible precautions seemed to be enough to keep my sensitive stomach from erupting. I never drank tap water, for example; I avoided salads and other uncooked vegetables; and I regularly consumed antacids after eating. I had no problems.

Of the half-dozen places I tried, La Valentina was by far the dining-out spot to be seen in. Opened five years ago in a swank shopping mall in the Polanco neighborhood, it is a hangout for fashionable Mexicans and visitors. From my corner table, I saw women sashay by clad in designer dresses and men trailing behind them wearing Armani suits and, by my tastes, too much jewelry.

The nouvelle Mexican place has achieved such quick success that the owners have opened several other branches, including one in Dallas. Everything looks as good as it tastes: hors d'oeuvres made from red chilies, shrimp quesadillas and tongue-tingling sauces atop almost everything. My cilantro soup was alive with spices, my chicken in a mole sauce tender and rich. My dining companion opted for a steak, which he reported to be adequate but not sensational. For two, with wine, we paid about $50.

La Opera looks like a turn-of-the-century cantina plucked out of Barcelona and plopped right down near the Zocalo region of the Mexican capital. It has a feel of slightly faded elegance, enhanced by an ornate ceiling and velvet drapes. A long wooden bar regularly draws a lively local crowd. I passed on the bull's testicles, but tried the eel, whose subtle taste combined well with the fresh, firm avocado it was stuffed into. Dessert was a soothing chongos zamoranos, a clotted milk dish made with lemons and cinnamon. For two, the tab came to about $25, including a couple of beers.

Fanu, located just behind the elegant Camino Real hotel, had the feel of boutique eateries on the Upper East Side of New York City. Everything about it was dainty, from the well-dressed (mostly female) clientele to the food. A light luncher, I had an excellent sandwich made from grilled chicken and a hunk of chocolate cake, almost as tender as Mom's. The bill came to $24 for two.

Las Mercedes, a couple of blocks from Fanu, may offer the most refined traditional Mexican cooking. I knew that something delicious was coming when I sat down and the waiter plopped a plate of olives and peppers and a bowl of spicy salsa and crisp fresh tacos in front of me. The wide-ranging menu includes such specialties as lamb baked in maguey leaves or baked shrimp covered with cheese.

My dining companion opted for a bone marrow soup and a main course of broiled tongue. I sampled both and found them savory and delicious. After a week of mole sauce and eels, however, I was ready for a break from the exotic. I ordered a plate of lobster quesadillas and another of enchiladas, which came tender and covered in a smooth cheese sauce. Both were so tasty I could think of no better response than to holler. The bill for two, including dessert and beer, came to $32.

- Las Mercedes,

113 Calle Leibnitz

- La Opera,

10 Avenida 5 de Mayo

- La Valentina,

Mazaryk 393

- Fanu,

100 Calle Leibnitz

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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