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A fiesta & a siesta: the many-sided joys of Mexican food, plus star salads and bar basics.

When burgers become banal, when seafood fails to satisfy and even pasta won't please, there is but one cure - Mexican food.

No other cuisine on this planet balances the gooey and the crispy, the smooth and the coarse, the hot and the tangy and the salty and the bland the way Mexican food does. A recent unscientific survey of our group of four friends who love to dine out together suggests that Mexican food deprivation triggers certain chemical receptors in the brain, rendering all other food tasteless (and life hopeless) until the yearning for burritos, enchiladas, flautas, tacos and tortillas is gratified. The deft combination of flour, exotic spices, salt and grease (aided by cold cerveza or icy Margarita) not only restores the body but uplifts the spirit. It's a fiesta and a siesta at the same time.

And local Mexican food addicts need not make a run for the border. Mexican fast-food chains and mini-mall dives seem to be proliferating here like so many cucarachas. We also have a higher grade of establishments, including Two Amigos on Washington Boulevard, Alvarez in Palmetto, Two Senoritas downtown on Main, Cafe Campestre on Bee Ridge, the Tequila Grill on Siesta and the TexMex off Honore in northeast Sarasota. There's even a trendy new Don Pablo's, the Outback of Mexican restaurants, on the Fruitville exit from I-75.

Our group knows them all. Don Pablo's will be a great addition once it works out the service kinks and customer intimidation caused by its basketball-arena scale. We like the innovative menu with delectable specials and personalized service at Two Amigos but it needs to improve on its space (expand) and atmosphere (deodorize). Two Senoritas, heir to Coley's and Guadalajara, allows one to order by "numero," while encountering the white-collar refugees and Gen X denizens who inhabit the block between Sarasota News and Books and First Watch. And it's unfair to evaluate the festive Tequila Grill and down-home Tex Mex as pure Mexican restaurants, since each emphasizes Mexican-influenced cuisine from Texas and New Mexico.

For this article, we decided to focus on three of the most visible and venerable local Mexican places - El Adobe, near the intersection of the Trail and Bee Ridge in Sarasota, Cafe Campestre on Bee Ridge between Tuttle and Beneva, and Alvarez Mexican Foods on Business 41 in Palmetto. In a town where some restaurants have the lifespan of a mayfly, these three have been alive and well for generations - 24, 22 and 15 years, respectively; and even in the dead of late summer, when we visited, we encountered Cinco-de-Mayo-sized crowds at all three.

Tacky appointments and a wait-until-manana milieu lend genuine Mexican establishments most of their charm, and all three, especially Alvarez, exemplify this curious allure. Care Campestre, in a strip mall, has the most romantic and intimate feel, along with such orthodox decorations as Mexican soda bottles on the cashier's counter and a PG-13-rated (half-frontal nudity) mural of ancient Aztecs. El Adobe, a stucco-covered, hacienda-like structure, is the most Americanized. It even has incongruous framed golfing illustrations, man-eating corner plants reminiscent of an '80s singles bar and some raucous middle-aged partiers appropriate for a Holiday Inn. The low, seven-foot ceilings do impart an air of authenticity.

11111111111111111Alvarez, on the other hand, is Tijuana kitsch, although over the years its Alamo-like interior design seems to be gradually giving way to a lighter and brighter Southwestern look, including azure brick work and stylized coyote table markers. We first visited Alvarez almost 10 years ago, and it was being remodeled then; it's still being remodeled, with missing plaster and electrical wall plates where more alfresco seating is planned. This must rival Interstate 4 as the longest reconstruction project in Florida history.

Regardless of interior design, the service was uniformly excellent. Though the cherubic waitress at Campestre - a recent immigrant - did not immediately comprehend our request for water all around, she was friendly, polite and attentive. El Adobe's waitress, though a gringo, was a knowledgeable former chef who deterred us from ordering what she said was an over-hyped chile relleno. And the servers at Alvarez were fonts of information, narrating a detailed history of the establishment and disclosing, on interrogation from the most suspicious member of our group, that there was indeed peanut butter in the mole and Breyer's ice cream in the sombrero dessert. (Good guessing, Elizabeth.)

The food and value at all three restaurants were also first-rate. Both El Adobe and Campestre have been consistently rated "Best of the Best" in this magazine's polls, and the fare at Alvarez continued on page 198 price point and uses every conceivable material, from traditional teak to Corian and lightweight new cast aluminum with finishes that suggest bronze or hand-forged wrought iron.

Furniture makers and retailers are challenged to stay ahead of consumer demand that is both educated and overwhelming. Ethan Allen has introduced a Home & Garden collection consisting of four new lines of garden furniture, and each one speaks to a different attitude. The Spa line is basically teak and aluminum and has fluid lines made for poolside. Trellis is richly detailed solid cast-aluminum that is decidedly romantic. The Metro collection is architecturally inspired and has a sleek urban look, while the Atrium line is neoclassical in design.

Knoll, a company known for its modern furniture, had designer Richard Schultz render a classic line of garden furniture for the firm in the '60s. Now Schultz designs for his own company and has been working in punched and curved anodized aluminum for his striking table, chairs, and a white lacy settee that costs $1,595.

At Cronin's Porch & Patio, Mia Coffman notes an increased interest lately in outdoor bar groupings. High bar stools in cast aluminum and luscious colors mean the home owner doesn't have to sacrifice glamour and luxury just because the furniture is being used outside.

Garden benches in stone and metal keep increasing in popularity, says Coffman, and even a showroom as large as Cronin's 10,500-square-foot facility often is challenged to meet the high demand for today's varied collection of casual furniture and accessories that move easily from inside to out and back in again.

"New designs in high quality rattan are the next wonderful thing," says Coffman. "A beautiful rattan grouping makes the porch or pool deck as inviting as the family room."

Robb & Stucky is busy creating free-standing patio stores near their big furniture galleries. There just isn't enough space anymore inside the main store to accommodate all the outdoor options. The 80-year-old company is on to something big. In Sarasota, the Robb & Stucky Patio Store is a 10,000-square-foot showroom located a half-block from the main store on the same side of South Tamiami Trail. Manager Jerry Stokes, who has 15 years experience in selling outdoor furniture, says the demand has never been greater. Robb & Stucky will open more patio stores in Naples, Fort Myers, Orlando, and cities in Arizona.

White wicker, says Stokes, is still one of the most popular choices. And maintaining the beauty of this time-honored type of furniture has been made easier by technology. The new-age wickers by Lane Venture and Lloyd Flanders are weatherproofed, and that includes the decorative cushions as well. Impervious to rain, sun, and mildew, these modern wickers promise years of enjoyment and elegance, and they invite you to adopt an attitude of benign neglect.

But wicker is just the beginning. Robb & Stucky carries furniture and accessories from a dozen different companies. At the higher end of the price scale is an outstanding line of carved pieces made from an African wood called Bubinga. To make the surprisingly comfortable slat chairs, lounges, and benches, this wonderful wood is carved, not bent. The result is furniture so unique and handsome that selected pieces easily move from porch or garden into a den or home office. An ensemble would be glorious for a yacht. A single chair can go for $1,279.

Teak is another reliable and classic rustic choice. Gloster offers everything from cottage cozy to haute elegant. The company is the world's largest manufacturer of teak furniture and all of it is made to company specifications on plantations in Java. The straight-grained teak is grown under strict environmental conditions and kiln-dried to ensure that joints fit perfectly and never wobble.

The cast aluminum lines of furniture are particularly appropriate for Sarasota's Mediterranean Revival architecture. This furniture looks like it was plucked from an Italian villa on the Adriatic and gently set down in Sarasota. The Pompeii pieces are particularly striking because they have an Old World patina. Until recently this 50-year-old company did only exclusive commercial projects, out-fitting glamorous hotels, resorts and restaurants with durable and sophisticated furniture. Now Pompeii welcomes home owners to shop for their personal resorts - their yards.

Furniture is one way to provide bones and structure for your garden rooms, but it's not the only way. Think of these outdoor spaces as needing four walls, entrances and exits. You don't have to worry about the ceiling - that's the sky.

Create walls with a charming stone enclosure, a wooden fence or consider vines-on-trellis options, a pergola, or screening. Trees, tall shrubs or hedges provide structure and privacy. Pathways define spaces. Crushed stone, mulch, grass and stepping stones further define the dimensions of your outdoor rooms. Borders of flowering perennials and plants in large moveable containers also help to separate spaces and can be used to suggest traffic patterns through the garden. A water element is always a good idea. Think fountains, a koi pond, a swimming pool; even a mundane birdbath has charm, especially since it will attract birds.

Lighting is of paramount importance and will determine the nighttime garden vistas you'll enjoy from the inside of your home. It will also set the mood for entertaining after sunset. Consult an expert early and budget generously for good illumination - it's worth it.

And don't forget art for your furnished, glowing garden rooms. Garden sculpture should reference the style of furniture you've chosen and complement the scale and size of the outdoor room. When in doubt, choose something large because little things don't make much of a statement. Sundials, stone benches, a Victorian gazing globe, market umbrellas - garden accessories are another whole category of delights and one certainly worth investigating once you've plotted out your room and selected the furniture. And if your garden just keeps growing and spreading? You have two choices: give bigger parties or host the next family reunion.
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Title Annotation:Sarasota County, FL's Mexican restaurants
Author:Paul, Robert
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Oct 1, 1998
Previous Article:A longer runway for SRQ?
Next Article:Renee Sleight Designs: bringing style and comfort to South Florida's finest interiors.

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