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Mexican Mediocrity 

Sonora Bay will inspire fans of traditional fare to keep on driving.

It's not just because I live in Tucson that I'm a little bit jaded about the quality of Mexican food. It's because I love Mexican food, wherever and however I find it: the celebration of color and flavor, the wide range of appeal with textures, the pure simplicity found in the earthiness of corn, chile, and chocolate. I have swooned at the tables of the gurus and the masters, but my heart still belongs to a bubbling pot of mole and a freshly patted-out platter of corn tortillas.

But enough about me.

It was more out of curiosity than anything else I found myself at Sonora Bay, an impressively imposing building sitting in the middle of a humming corner on Sunrise Drive. We didn't have any particular expectations other than to find the solace of a solid meal.

The menu announced that Sonora Bay has been serving "the finest Mexican food and margaritas since 1946." I assume not in this particular location, since in 1946 the corner of Sunrise and Wilmot was still largely undisturbed desert. No, this meant that the owners of Sonora Bay have been in the industry since 1946. One would think they might have learned a trick or two along the way.

The menu is fairly routine, rounding up the usual suspects: tacos, burros, the ubiquitous chimichanga, quesadillas and enchiladas. We knew better than to start with the "Gila Monster Eggs." No matter what people call them, jalapeños stuffed with cream cheese and then deep fried are a blight on humanity, a mealy mouthful of mush and zapped, blistered lips. We wanted to try the "ceveche" (sic) but the restaurant wasn't serving it that night. So we settled with what our server suggested, the Chile con Queso ($5.50) and the Nachos Especial ($5.99).

Our waiter was very earnest. He was sweet and chipper and dear and he insisted that the appetizers were big, Really Big, and we might want to place our entire order before they came out so we wouldn't get too full. We believe honesty is always the best policy, and recognize a hard sell when we see one. And being sympathetic that the venue was mostly empty, we obliged our waiter and ordered our entire meal at his urging.

When the appetizers did arrive, we weren't particularly impressed with the portioning. Nor were we particularly impressed with the ingredients that had gone into their making. The chile con queso dip was a fairly bilious shade of green, a few drippy shreds of what might have once been chile, and tasted as if processed cheese had been nuked into it. The nachos were modest, not particularly He-Man sized, and they were, well, nachos. We left most of the appetizers sitting on the table and waited for entrées.

And waited.

When they finally arrived we all shared that moment of inward resignation. It was going to be another one of those nights ... when the fork is reluctant to travel to the lip, and plates sit and go limp simply from the collective sense of rejection gathered around the table.

I will make this as brief as possible.

El Vaquero ($13.95), a rather diminutive steak, hard to miss cooking correctly, was not cooked to the requested temperature. Served with a limp relleno, refried beans and pasty guacamole, this plate could have been snappy but missed the cattle call.

La Banderilla ($13.95), shrimp kabobs, was served with rice and small tortilla ramekins filled with refried beans and guacamole. The shrimp was kind of rubbery, and the flavors didn't really mesh.

Tacos de Pescados ($9.95) could have rocked because it's hard to go wrong with fish tacos if you've got any sense of flavor, but this "Mexican tartar" sauce was abysmal: loose, salty and sad. These sat on the plate with hurt feelings that no one wanted to eat them, but not even pity could move us to redeem them.

The Fajitas del Rey ($11.75) arrived sizzling dramatically. Truth be told, this was probably the most palatable of any of the plates. Perhaps because it finished cooking tableside, it hadn't been overly done or manhandled. The vegetables stood up with some flavor--tomatoes, chiles, onions and peppers--and the chicken wasn't that stringy. Honest.

We did order dessert, not out of any overt masochistic tendencies, but from genuine need. We were hungry. Sopapillas ($2.95) were available, and we had one in our party who grew up on these babies. We ordered them, but even these sat too long under some heat lamp. By the time they arrived the oil had congealed on them, leaving that streak across the roof of your mouth that doesn't let you taste any flavor, just grease.

Perhaps one of the most difficult things of all is to try to describe a perfectly mediocre dining experience. Perhaps one should address the art on the walls, or the selection in music. But in the end I found myself morosely paying the bill, waiting for the rest of the group to troop out of the restaurant.

We enjoy one another's company no matter where we find ourselves, and there is solace to be taken in this. Had I not counted on the fact that reimbursement would be coming for this particular meal, I would not have gone out gently into that good night. But this is a bill I will not have to pay. And the next time I'll know to keep driving down that good road. Just a few lights away and for a few pesos more, one can sup in any one of a dozen excellent Mexican restaurants where indigenous ingredients are ushered into a higher life form.

It's just a matter of knowing where to stop, but it wouldn't be here.

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