The Whole Enchilada

If You're Ready To Blow This Taco-Stand Town, Consider Cooling Your Heels At La Pianola.

WITH ITS VIBRANT purple and mustard yellow interior, La Pianola is something of a caricature of the Mexican cantina prominent in Southwestern lore. While there are no brassy notes from a mariachi band, or smiling señoritas with flowers in their hair to take your order (the servers here are mostly young men in trousers and white dress shirts), there is nonetheless enough suggestion of parody that a glimpse of Quick Draw McGraw ambling into the dining room wouldn't seem entirely amiss.

La Pianola strives be a unique Mexican dining experience in a town rife with Mexican restaurants, where the customer base is savvy in the ways of enchiladas and chiles rellenos. It's a tough road to travel, loaded with potential pitfalls and disappointments for one and all. While La Pianola's high-flying arrow might not always hit the bull's-eye, its stewards are to be commended for coming so darn close. The dining here is better than good; and with a little fine-tuning, La Pianola could be as deliciously splashy as its bold color scheme.

We start with a menu that veers away from the typical Sonoran-style fare. The familiar here comes with a twist, like entrees that include a green salad (with choice of jicama or raspberry vinaigrette) in addition to the ubiquitous chips and salsa we've come to expect. A móle sauce is made with citrus and pistachios rather than the dusky notes of chile, onion, garlic and chocolate. A roasted pork loin is dressed in a pungent tomatillo salsa, and grilled jumbo shrimp swim gleefully in an exotic chipotle and tamarind sauce, accompanied by brown rice with lemon.

What exactly is going on here? There's not a taco or chimichanga in sight, making it clear that for all appearances to the contrary, this cantina aspires to a singular status among the Mexican eatery elite.

Of course, some things never change, like that zesty salsa and bowl of chips that will arrive shortly after being seated in one of three dining areas. Cheese crisps (with or without green chiles, tomatoes and onion) and guacamole also hold their ground on a list of appetizers, but here any comparison to standard Mexican fare ends. We opt for the champiñones con chipotle ($5.75), sliced mushrooms sautéed in butter and garlic, and smothered in white cheese. The dried chipotle berry is deceptively hot for its size, and generally speaking a little goes a long way. Perhaps the chef took one look at our gringo table and felt the need to be overcautious, because the expected heat was strangely missing in our order. Or perhaps our order was confused with a similar mushroom-and-cheese option prepared sans chiles.

Famished, we wrapped our disappointment in warm flour tortillas and focused instead on the rich texture and flavor of this wonderful deviation, best shared in smaller portions and enjoyed while still steaming hot. Even if it was a mistake, it was nonetheless delicious.

The healthy green salad is not a common side dish on the Mexican platter, but a choice of soup or greens is part and parcel of what you'll get at La Pianola. The day's beef-vegetable soup didn't strike our south-of-the-border fancy, so we tried a salad with the aforementioned vinaigrettes -- jicama and raspberry -- served on the side. The berry was nicely tart, but the jicama was bland to the point of being unidentifiable. Perhaps a dash of jalapeño might pick up a few notes, but on its own the jicama barely registers. At any rate, the melange of dark, leafy greens, tomato, cucumber and red onion offered a bright, fresh repast with plenty of natural flavor.

Encouraged by the breadth of La Pianola's main course offerings, we opted to play fowl with orders for chicken enchiladas in pipian ($8.95), chicken breast with pistachio móle sauce ($10.50), chicken fajitas ($8.95) and the rellenos de la casa ($9.25).

The fajitas are just what one expects: still sizzling, with large rounds of red and green bell pepper, onion, tomatoes and tender strips of chicken. Guacamole is served on the side and folds nicely into flour tortillas alongside its crunchy vegetable counterparts and tender morsels of yardbird. Though tasty, this colorful dish lacks the expected twist La Pianola encourages us to expect. Salt, pepper and hot sauce, added at the diner's discretion, are the only spice in sight.

The clover-green pistachio móle fared better. At direct odds with any móle experience I've had, this pared-down preparation is lighter in flavor but still delicious. Finely ground pistachios lend a clandestine sweetness to the dish, while a squeeze of citrus and whisper of cilantro enliven a smothered breast of chicken with a sprightly zing. Accompanying beans and rice are a comforting presence, though nothing to rave about.

Pipian is a sauce similar to the chocolatey móle in its intricate balancing, drawing as it does from a dusky palette of red chiles and ground pumpkin seeds. Its soul mate is tender chicken. La Pianola's enchiladas de pipian are just such a perfect marriage: rolled corn tortillas filled with minced chicken and topped with this nutty, spicy sauce. Our only complaint was the temperature -- at room rather than piping hot -- which always troubles me as I wonder how long it may have been sitting before being gathered up and brought to me.

La Pianola's chile rellenos stake their reputation on the fact that they're not deep fried, making them a more healthful entrée than that typically featured. All the same ingredients are deployed -- succulent Anaheim green chile, egg batter and melted cheese -- but here a dynamic chile duo takes on more of a casserole appearance. The flavor is basically the same, but the texture is worrisome, with a tendency toward the sodden. Even if this dish is eminently more healthful to consume, it's likely to be an acquired taste for traditionalists.

An earlier report suggested that dessert at La Pianola was not to be missed, but we found the final course perfectly expendable. If you can't call it a night without something sweet, then, perhaps, the pineapple pie ($3) will suffice. Under its lattice crust, the minced, jellied filling only vaguely resembles the tropical fruit. A peach melba ($2.85) suffered a similar fate with canned peaches, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and a drizzle of raspberry sauce over the whole. Even the crema española ($3.50), a chilled, egg-less custard that sounds delectable with mango, strawberries, peaches and blueberries, has little to recommend it. It's sweet, it's cool, but not much else.

Though generally decent, service early on encountered difficulty with coordinating food and beverages. Nor did our server demonstrate much familiarity with the menu, relegating specific questions to vague answers such as, "Oh, that's very good," or "People seem to like that...."

But pioneering has never been a smooth trail, and La Pianola indeed endeavors to stake out new, and arguably healthier, territory in the local and regional fare. Though in its present state it's little more than a diversion, with a few refinements this restaurant could easily rise to fulfill its manifest destiny.

La Pianola. 840 E. Ft. Lowell Road. 792-0711. Open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Closed Mondays. Beer, wine, margaritas, specialty drinks. V, MC, AMEX, checks. Menu items: $3-$15.95.
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