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SOUTH OF THE BORDER

<i> --Compiled by Steven Smith</i>

Some like it hot and , for those who do, these recently reviewed Mexican restaurants are happy to oblige. They run the gamut from the traditional to the trendy, from almost grubby to quite gourmet. They even include the latest thing in chile chic .

AZTECA, 424 Lincoln Blvd., Venice, (213) 396-6576. Azteca is a happy place to eat. The staff is happy you are there, generous with service and enthusiastic in food recommendations. We suggest the carnitas , succulent with a bit of crunchiness and ranking with Los Angeles’ best. Those with a taste for fajitas shouldn’t be disappointed: There is a choice of chicken or beef, or both in the same skillet. Some offbeat dishes also stand out: the shrimp in the camarones rancheros are especially fresh and tender, served on a bed of green peppers, tomatoes and onions. All the dinners are accompanied by rice, beans, albondigas soup or green salad. Open Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-midnight, Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Reservations. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Full bar. Dinner, $10-$20. THE BORDER GRILL, 7407 1/2 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 658-7495. This latest incarnation of the former City Cafe. The long, narrow storefront room is still packed with people, the food still served by a confident staff that knows it’s about to offer something good. The menu is nouvelle ( nuevo ?) Mexican--Mexican minus the lard and the same old bean/rice/enchilada configuration. The tender grilled chicken is smothered with sauteed roasted red peppers and onions sitting on a bed of rice. The huarache is a masa turnover filled with a black-bean paste and resting in a pool of red and green sauce--a visual treat that tastes good, too. The fish plates are fresh and juicy, especially the grilled scallops (in a tangy red sauce) and the sabana (a pounded thin filet mignon). There’s a temptation to try everything at once, but pace yourself--you’ll be back. Open Tuesday-Friday noon-11 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Reservations. Beer and wine. Dinner, $30-$50. BURRITO HOUSE CAFE, 3358 West 1st St., Los Angeles, (213) 381-7281. To the casual passer-by, it may seem a fast-food outlet, but the Burrito House Cafe is serious about producing superior Mexican dishes. The squarish black dinner plates, the massive Italian sideboard, the old English chandelier--this isn’t the sort of place where you eat from a plastic tray. Typical of the food style is the Commonwealth burrito, filled with chicken in the most delicate green chile sauce imaginable. Lighter still is pollo celant , chicken dipped in lemon juice and combined with cilantro. Aside from burritos there are excellent taquitos , stuffed with ground beef mixed with finely cut potato and guacamole. As much a specialty as the burritos are the fresh fruit drinks, which change day to day. Open Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-9 p.m. No credit cards. Dinner, $10-$15. MARIA’S RAMADA, 1064 N. Kingsley Drive, Los Angeles, (213) 660-4436. Enter the mustard-colored stucco box building and you are in Mexico. The decor and the dishes are based on the cooking of Maria Domingas Dorn’s native Ramada: The cooking is unusual, rich with spices and sweetish sauces. One of Maria’s dazzlers is baked baby goat (called cabrito al horno caldo on the menu): tender to the point of falling away from the bone, it’s virtually without fat. Maria takes pride in cooking everything from scratch, including the beans topped with melted cheese that accompany each entree. The popular items? The special consists of a taquito , an enchilada and a small Spencer steak. The fish is fresh, and the caldo siete mares is filled with crab, clam, fish, octopus, shrimp and abalone. Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Friday-Sunday 11 a.m.-midnight. Reservations. Major credit cards. Dinner, $11-$20. RESTAURANT MERIDA, 20 E. Colorado, Suite 102, Pasadena, (818) 792-7371. The spirit of the Yucatan is nicely captured in this Spanish Colonial-style restaurant in Old Town. Its courtyard is filled with colorful umbrellas; indoors, Old World lace curtains cover the high windows. It’s modest and unassuming. The food may lack refinement, but the dishes are tasty and slightly different from most Mexican restaurants: panuchos are tortillas spread with black beans and topped with pieces of chicken, tomatoes and guacamole; cochinita pibil offers banana leaves filled with pork in a spicy sauce; machaca is shredded beef nestled in a double tortilla. Seafood lovers should definitely try the the whole fried red snapper, huachinango frito, a typically Yucatecan dish. Open Monday-Sunday 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; lunch Mon-Fri. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Reservations. American Express and Carte Blanche. Wine and beer. Dinner, $15-$25. SABROSO, 1029 W. Washington Blvd., Venice, (213) 399-3832. The crowd is upscale and artsy, the decor self-consciously spare. The food, however, is unique. The cactus salad is Mexico meets California 1986-- diced nopale , tomatoes and slivers of ricotta salata cheese and rosemary. The chicken mole verde , a juicy breast covered in a chartreuse sauce of pumpkin seeds, poblano chili, tomatillo and garlic, is served with beans and rice perked up with roasted pine nuts. Their sausages also show great know-how: instead of greasy chorizo, these are made of ground duck and chicken spiced with cumin and cilantro, served with jalapeno mustard. Combined with hand-made tortillas and salsa cruda , they make a fine dinner. Lunch Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesday-Sunday 6-10:30 p.m. No credit cards. Beer and wine. Dinner, $27-$45. LA SERENATA DE GARIBALDI, 1842 East 1st St., Los Angeles (213) 265-2887. Located five minutes from downtown, this quiet little gem of a restaurant offers an abundance of gaiety, homemade delicacies and low prices. At 8 a.m., La Serenata begins serving generous and varied breakfasts: the $3 special includes delicate hot cakes, poached eggs and possibly L.A.'s finest oatmeal. Dinners are also inexpensive, and range from the standard--dishes like chiles rellenos served with rice and beans--to the exotic, such as mole poblano (a mix of barnyard chicken and classic Mexican sauce). The real treasure is the pico de gallo , a blend of diced onion, tomato, chili and cilantro served with fresh hot tortilla chips. Fresh, delicious seafoods are offered when available. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. No credit cards. Parking in rear. Dinner, $10-$15.


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