From the Heart of Mexico

Miguel's serves wonderful Mexican food with a twist--but beware of the prices

The buzz on Miguel's was a bit confusing. Some said it served Mexican food; others said Latin American; and still another said the food was Spanish. Other folks called the place fancy, beautiful and expensive.

Some friends--Libby Mack, Pam Pierce and Karen Horvath--met me at Miguel's, located on North Oracle Road in the La Posada Lodge and Casitas (formerly The Cliff Manor Inn). I think we were all surprised at what we found there, because even though Miguel's specializes in Latin American food, you won't find the traditional Sonoran fare. The influences here come from deep in the heart of Mexico--Oaxaca and Jalisco, for example, and beyond. Seafood dominates, but the menu also sports plenty of red meat and even a "Vegetarian Special of the Moment"--their words, not mine.

We were seated on the patio. In fact, all of the diners were seated on the patio. No one was dining indoors! And while it was a perfect night for dining al fresco, it's a shame such a lovely room was going to waste. On one side of the room is a bar. The far wall consists of huge picture windows. Tropical colors--dusty pinks, buttery yellows, pale greens and foamy blues--on the walls are repeated in the table settings. The artwork is unique and again calls to mind the tropics. There are even two ancient fossils on hand. One is a large shell; the other is a huge clump of shells and is purported to be 150 million years old! Look for it in the entryway.

Two menus were on the table--one rather lengthy wine menu and an even longer tequila/margarita menu. The second one was almost overwhelming. Who knew so many tequilas existed? We opted out of these drinks, though Karen and I did each order a glass of wine. (The per-glass offerings were a bit limited, it must be noted.)

Service was quite attentive. There seemed to be a half-dozen people at our beck and call. The staff wanted us to enjoy ourselves; that was clear. Any questions or needs were met with efficiency and grace.

Reading through the appetizer menu, it seemed at first that there were just the usual choices: calamari, crab cakes, ceviche, shrimp cocktail, guacamole. But upon a closer look, we noticed that each of the standards were prepared in a unique way. Karen ordered the flash-fried calamari ($8), which was dusted with masa harina instead of flour or breadcrumbs and served with pepperocini, cholula (a hot sauce) and lime. Libby ordered the ceviche Jalisco ($9). This dish was made up of marinated fresh fish, shrimp and scallops and mixed with serranos, tomato and a mix of citrus juices. I ordered the crab cake a la plancha ($12), which was served on a bed of green papaya and tortilla slaw with a dollop of chipotle aioli. Pam opted for the lobster cigars ($12), an intriguing dish that stuffed lobster and rock shrimp into a phyllo-like dough, fried crisp.

We shared bites and agreed that by far, the lobster cigars and the calamari were the best! The cigars were crispy and slightly sweet/hot from the guava/serrano reduction, and the calamari was light and full of flavor. And while the ceviche was excellent, both hot with peppers and bright with citrus flavors, the crab cake fell a bit short. It was good, but nothing special--the papaya slaw and aioli is what gave it zing.

The entrées, too, at first seemed pretty much like anywhere else, but then again, they weren't. Pam ordered a chile relleno with a grilled seafood brochette ($19); Libby went with the Gregorio, chicken and wild mushroom enchiladas ($14); Karen ordered the five-chile leg of grilled spring lamb ($19); and I decided on the bacon-wrapped prawns ($20).

Pam's chile was a bit too hot, even for her tastes, and Karen's lamb wasn't prepared to her asking. But that's not saying they weren't absolutely delicious. Everything was fantastic, made even more so by the flavorful sauces and tasty side dishes.

Libby's enchiladas were packed full of tender chicken and thinly sliced wild mushrooms, sour cream and cheeses. The salsa colorado turned what could've been a very ordinary dish into anything but. The same can be said of Karen's lamb. It was served with a rattlesnake bean posole and pan juices, which deepened the flavor of the meat and more than made up for the miscue in the doneness.

Pam's relleno was also crammed full of a variety of seafood and cheeses, and the brochette was cooked perfectly, another unusual twist on an old favorite. I really liked my bacon-wrapped prawns: eight good-sized grilled shrimp wrapped in sweet and salty bacon. They were served on a pool of a sauce made with horseradish and brown sugar. Sauces are definitely a strong point at Miguel's.

The black beans, the squash medley and the Oaxacan green chile rice also met with raves. The rice was a big hit! Creamy from plenty of cheese and with only an undertone of the flavorful chiles sprinkled throughout, it was a wonderful change from good old Spanish rice.

Desserts were unusual as well. We shared two: a chocolate chipotle brownie served with vanilla ice cream ($7) and a twist on tres leches cake ($7). Miguel's version was a tiny pound cake topped with pistachio ice cream. Both desserts were rich and dense--especially the brownie. They were small, but after such a big, rich meal, there wasn't much room for more.

A word on the prices, though: While dining at Miguel's can certainly be considered a fine dining experience, some of the prices are a bit over the top for what you're getting. Even fine dining establishments rely on regular customers, but the prices at Miguel's, although comparable, work better at places that offer a more eclectic menu.

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