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.Andrea Fischman

Southwestern Comfort
By B.A. Nilsson

The Mexican Connection
41 Nelson Ave., Saratoga Springs, 584-4466. Serving daily from 4 PM. (Closed Mon-Tue as racing season winds down.) D, DC, MC, V.

Food: ***˝
Service: Hectic

Ambience: Casual

Here’s a first for me: this week’s restaurant is right across the street from last week’s. Meaning it’s within shouting distance of the Saratoga flat track, and therefore picks up a lot of August business from it. But this place has long established itself as a year-round destination.

As the first Mexican restaurant in the Capital Region (it opened in 1979), it has seen a lot of competition of varying degrees of authenticity. But the Mexican Connection established itself and stayed with a formula that has won a devoted following, both for its food and its comfortable, rather homespun surroundings.

We’ve learned much about Mexican and Southwestern fare in the past 20 years, and the quest for authenticity has caused restaurants like this to fall under unnecessary scrutiny. It’s never been the mission of this place to place you in downtown Zacatecas.

Owner Marilyn Farrell hails from Kansas City, and notes that she grew up with Mexican food because of that area’s large Hispanic population. She went on to study the cuisine in situ, as well as with Diana Kennedy, whose Mexican cookbooks are among the best.

I made a reservation for a recent weeknight, stupidly putting us in as a party of four because one of our group of five was an infant. My wife, who arrived before I did, suggested that we’d fit better at a more capacious table—we were going to be squeezed between two other four-tops—and the house was more than happy to oblige. Which was more than we deserved.

While waiting by the bar, I studied the extensive tequila menu. The restaurant is rightly proud of the variety that’s offered, with several brands apiece of the blanco, anejo and reposados varieties, as well as a few (more costly) that have been aged for three or more years.

We were seated at a long table in a back room surrounded by cheerful western-movie memorabilia—lobby cards for Gene Autry and Roy Rogers movies, for example—and given menus, although the promised children’s menu never materialized.

And there you have my main criticism of our dinner experience: A well-meaning staff was fragmented by the many demands. Same old story. Busy height-of-the-season nights will expose such problems more noticeably than when business is slack, but it comes down to the matter of setting up a service system that will accommodate the peak times.

However, you’re saying, we’re at the mercy of seasonal help. Doesn’t matter: When the system is in place, you should be able to plug your competent employees into it. But this is something I’ll take up at more length in a forthcoming column.

Trying to get my party into some kind of concerted ordering state of mind was difficult. As usual, my wife, Susan, promptly began to fire off her requests but I had reinforcements this time and we were able to contain her. I asked instead for an appetizer—cheese and spinach dip ($8)—while the rest of us pored over the listings.

This is a Mexican Connection classic, flirting with kitsch as it arrives in a ceramic sombrero, the dip forming the peak, so to speak, with a brimful of corn chips below. No culinary ground broken here—it’s straight-ahead, b-flat bar food—but it accomplished its purpose in stanching our hunger.

Our party included my five-year-old, Lily, and our friend Vicki’s one-year-old, so we chose to accommodate a variety of tastes. For the kids: rice and beans ($2.75), which we augmented with tastes from the other plates.

I chose the Acapulco with meat ($15), which comes with your choice of carne. I chose chorizo, a Mexican sausage, which was combined with beans and a restrained amount of cheese in a big pair of burritos, served with rice. Good, reliable stuff, with a compelling mix of flavors but not much pepper-heat. Huge portion, too: I got two more meals out of the leftovers.

Vicki veered in the meatless direction, easily satisfied here, and ordered a Yucatan tostado ($13), a flat, crisped tortilla topped with black beans and sour cream, appropriately seasoned, served with cumin-scented rice, guacamole (mashed and seasoned avocado) and romaine-based salad.

A similar assembly informs the chilaquiles ($12), in which layers of crisped corn tortillas are filled with shredded chicken and melted cheese, with a wonderfully tart tomatillo-cilantro sauce. Susan and Lily shared this one and still had plenty to bring home.

We enjoyed this with a couple of beers—they have Dos Equis on tap—but quit eating before we all got too stuffed. But with fussy children and all that food, we passed on the desserts, despite my fondness for the restaurant’s flan.

Service slowed considerably at this point and we had to go chase the check, but it was nice to see that the food quality hasn’t diminished and the restaurant remains as friendly as ever.

Dinner for three (with a couple of kids in tow) with tax and tip and a couple of beers, was $75.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Enjoy a tour of the best of Trefethen Vineyards with a special wine dinner at Nicole’s Bistro at the Quackenbush House (Clinton & Broadway, Albany) beginning at 6 PM Thursday, Sept 12. The four-course meal by chef Daniel E. Smith shows off such wines as Trefethen’s 1999 Napa Valley Chardonnay and outstanding examples of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, the last paired with Hudson Valley moularde duck breast with wild mushroom Yorkshire pudding and a dried cherry-cabernet glaze. It’s $85 per person, including tax and tip, and you can reserve seats by phoning the restaurant at 465-1111. This is part of the Saratoga Wine & Food Festival, which also features Thursday night events at Eartha’s, 43 Phila Bistro, the Friends Lake Inn, the Glen Sanders Mansion, Hattie’s, the Lake Placid Lodge, the Lodge at Saratoga, Longfellows, Nicole’s, One Caroline Street Bistro, Provence, Siro’s, Sperry’s and Yono’s; on Fri, Sep 13, a special Hall of Springs dinner brings together pairings of many different wines with appropriate course. Seminars throughout Saturday examine various aspects of wine and wine enjoyment, while a grand tasting and auction runs from 11 AM-5:30 PM. It’s a fundraiser for the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, and you can get more info by phoning 587-3330, or by checking out the website at www.spac.org/ calender/wine.html. . . . Remember to pass your Scraps to Metroland.

—B.A.N.

(Please fax info to 922-7090)



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