Mex With a View

Sam Fox again enhances his successful restaurant empire, this time with Blanco

Where's homegrown restaurant mogul Sam Fox? Eastside, westside, all around the town--and in Phoenix, Glendale, Scottsdale and Colorado, with fashionable eateries that multiply like bunnies (three Sauces here in town, and four NoRTHs in various cities so far) and morph like acid dreams (Bistro Zin closed but is reopening soon under another name as a chic beer and burger joint).

If you live in Tucson, and you like to eat, sooner or later, the tractor beam that is Fox Restaurant Concepts will drag you in. And to think it all began at The Hungry Fox.

Fox's success is not only phenomenal; it's phenomenally well-deserved. His first big winner, Wildflower in Casas Adobes at Ina and Oracle roads, was a revelation from the day it opened in 1998. What a concept for little ol' Tucson: a restaurant that was hip, gorgeous, theatrical, friendly and consistently excellent, all at once. I first tasted wasabi mashed potatoes at Wildflower--probably in that opening year--and I remember exactly where I was sitting. That was a festive, dressed-up evening, but I've also walked in on an impromptu basis wearing clothes more suitable for yard work and been treated just as warmly as the linen-frocked ladies-who-lunch. If Fox had never opened another place, he'd have a lasting claim to fame in Wildflower. (I rather like the fact that he hasn't used the name again, but has called its two "sister" restaurants Bloom.)

Now, apparently bored with the paltry challenge of competing with other restaurateurs, he's going up against one of his own ventures by opening Blanco Tacos + Tequila just across the parking lot from NoRTH at La Encantada. As usual, he seems to have judged the market perfectly.

Blanco serves upscale, modern Mexican food in a pretty room and on a south- and east-facing patio with one of those sweeping La Encantada views. The atmosphere is casual, high energy and distinctly young: There's a hopping bar with dozens of tequilas and beers (all bottled), swarms of young, eager, attractive servers and a soundtrack of club music that's a little too loud for anyone older than 40--although it's tolerable out on the patio.

My mother, my husband and I started, of course, with chips and salsa as we waited for my son and his girlfriend to join us. Tortilla chips are the leading cause of the dire condition known as Mexican Restaurant Stomach--the uneasy, overstuffed feeling of regret that comes over you toward the end of a Mexican meal. Blanco's chips are even more seductive and appetite-ruining than most: Hot, light, fine textured, slightly puffy and nearly greaseless, they're not exactly traditional, but they're great, and our server kept them coming.

Three of us ordered classic margaritas ($8) and found them superb. Sadly, I ordered the black and blue mojito ($10), which was beautiful but tasted like cough syrup. I should have known better: Rum plus sugar plus mint plus berries plus some sort of berry syrup equals Robitussin. The berries and mint in the drink were fresh and lovely; it was just an unfortunate combination of flavors. My bad.

As if the chips weren't enough ballast for the alcohol, we ordered a crab and shrimp ceviche ($12) to share. It was a scrumptious bowl of seafood dressed with tangy, creamy sauce and chopped cilantro, and we polished it off pronto. Ed followed the appetizer with the cheese enchilada plate ($10); I had the fish tacos ($12); Dave had the red chile chicken enchilada plate ($14), while Mom and Batya both had the carnitas tacos ($10). Everything was tasty, fresh and as described in the menu, although the sharpest sauce of all--actual hunger--had long since disappeared.

Service was crackerjack. We are a thirsty, fast-gobbling crew, and we waited for nothing. The young servers at Blanco hustle, smile and know their business. Our waitress didn't have to ask who'd ordered what: She knew. It's not an actual sin, I guess, when a server has to ask where every plate goes, but it interrupts the flow of conversation and, worse, breaks the illusion of the personal connection, the little fiction that your server knows and cares about you. Sam Fox is making a fortune, in part, because he understands how to make people happy in his restaurants, and servers who are on the ball and properly trained are a huge part of that.

Full of good food and alcohol, lolling in comfortable chairs, heads bobbing to a Mary J. Blige song (finally, something good on the sound system) and watching big clouds sweep around the valley below, we were content. We'd paid premium rates for margaritas and Mexican food in a town overflowing with good, cheap 'ritas and enchilada plates, but a view and atmosphere like Blanco's comes with a price. We were happy to pay it.