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Latin Invasion 

With an ambitious menu and a lot of color, Sur Real is making its mark

Sur Real offers some of the best views of Tucson and has added a needed Latin-American spin to the restaurant "row" at the intersection of Skyline Road and Campbell Avenue.

We stopped by for a Saturday lunch. The server greeted us quickly and delivered chips, salsa and a tiny bowl of the house bean dip. While the chips and salsa were unremarkable, the bean dip was worth noting: Pureed black beans and crumbled Mexican chorizo were stirred together into a spicy blend. The more you ate, the more you wanted.

We decided to skip appetizers. John ordered the Havana plate: ropa viejas (slow-cooked beef) with black beans and Dominican rice ($12). I ordered the Puebla plate: turkey mole with Yucatan fries (sweet potatoes) and Mexican roasted street sweet corn ($12).

We watched others receive humongous portions of food—the nachos ($12-$16) looked like enough for a table of six—and when our meals arrived, they, too, were huge.

John's juicy shreds of tender beef held a nice, mild heat. My mole, unlike what we often see around here, included chunks of turkey that had been roasted in a light (in both color and flavor) sauce. Small, soft, flour tortillas accompanied both plates.

We enjoyed both entrées immensely—but the side dishes elevated the meal to another level. The black beans were tender, with their natural juices adding a lot of flavor. The rice was light and fluffy, with just a hint of heat. Although the corn had been roasted and scraped from the cob—some kernels were a golden brown—it was moist and buttery. The sweet-potato fries were perhaps some of the best I've ever had. The sugar had bubbled on the outside, creating a nice crunch, while the inside remained soft and sweet.

Dessert was the flan brulee ($9). The flan fared well under the crackly coating. A hint of chile powder melted away into the creamy custard.

Before I discuss our next visit, I'd like to offer some advice to the person(s) answering the phone: I called on a Friday afternoon to see if I needed reservations for a Sunday dinner. I was told I wouldn't need them, as Sur Real usually isn't too busy on Sunday nights. No! Always take a reservation; never let customers know that you probably won't be busy.

We went without the reservation and were seated at once—but had we arrived an hour later, we would've had to wait. The place filled up quickly.

A word about the décor: Splashes of bright colors are tossed about on polka-dotted banquettes, swirled carpeting and lighting. (I counted nine different kinds of lighting, including an ever-changing, neon-like band of color above the banquettes, and a light show on several large-screen TV's.) Faux wood—three or four types—mixes with several types of faux stone. Several columns don't seem to serve any purpose whatsoever. I found it a bit disconcerting; it seemed like eight people each had a say in the look. But that's just me; I'm sure others would find the room fun and "surreal."

There are too many tables on the floor, which results in cramped quarters for diners and tough maneuvering for the servers. Nonetheless, the service was managed well—although it wasn't nearly as polished on our dinner visit.

Since we'd skipped appetizers at lunch, we ordered two for dinner: the Colombian arepas ($9) and the house specialty, "hot stones" ($14). John ordered a Ketel One martini ($11—a bit steep), and I choose a Chilean pinot noir from the Latin heavy, yet well-rounded wine list. Entrées were a rib steak ($39) for John and a chile-dusted sea bass ($25) for me. We opted out of the churrasqueria menu, where one gets to mix and match several entrées and sides.

Due to the large portions, we could have easily made a nice dinner from our two appetizers alone. The arepas—golden cornmeal cakes sprinkled with cojita cheese—were supposed to come with cream and a lime cilantro slaw. The crema was missing (but not missed), and the slaw was merely decoration on the plate. However, these were a delight, sweet and savory by turn.

The hot stones were tasty, and the presentation was impressive. A smooth, football-sized river rock that had been heated to 500 degrees was placed on the table along with about a dozen, thinly sliced, marinated sirloin strips, and three salsas: chimichurri, ranchera and verde. You place the meat on the hot rock, and with a sizzle and a pop, the pieces cook up in barely a minute. Put the sauces on before or after cooking; it's totally up to you. The complex flavors of meat and salsa matched the presentation wholeheartedly.

The entrées also excelled. John's steak was tender, but not to the point of losing its beefiness. The menu says the beef, from Uruguay, is free-range and both hormone- and antibiotic-free.

My fish, which held a healthy dusting of chili powder, was cooked perfectly. There was a carrot sauce (which almost made me decide against the dish) that dressed the plate, but it was so mild that I tasted carrot only in passing.

Once again, the sides excelled. We both had the pappas rostizados, a blend of Peruvian purple, Yukon gold (I didn't know the Yukon was in Latin America!) and sweet potatoes. They worked well with both the fish and the steak. John's plate also had tender green beans; mine had sautéed garlic spinach. Both were quite enjoyable.

Dessert was tres leches cake ($10). Denser than most I've had, it was the perfect ending to our meal.

Décor aside, I really liked this place. When you need a change, Sur Real would make for a great dining choice.

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