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RESTAURANTS / Max Jacobson : Southwest Cuisine at El Torito’s Caliente Is Hot and, <i> Well</i> , Not So Hot

Besides being the Spanish word for hot, Caliente is the newest and arguably brightest star in the El Torito galaxy--a flashy spinoff of the equally hot El Torito G-R-I-L-L.

I happen to think that Caliente, which specializes in nouvelle Southwest cuisine, is terrific. But do I have to admit that two of the people who dined with me did not share my view? They found the dining room strident and the cooking spotty, and I found that feelings seem to run, well, hot and cold with this place.

The view from my end of the table is that the dining room is a stunner--a combination of Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol and Hopi medicine man. The room glows a faint red, like a dying fire in the sunset. Tables are a brighter shade of red, offset by sky-blue napkins, and the stiff chairs around them of coal-black wood. Along one wall is the ghostly silhouette of an adobe village, set in black against a deep orange sky. Cactuses and colored neons add a dimension of ‘80s chic. A homey fireplace adds the hearthlike dimension of a frontier hacienda. Welcome to the Hotel California.

Even my friends had to admit things got off to a brilliant start. Homemade tortillas came steaming to the table, fresh off the restaurant’s trademark comal , a high-tech version of the classic stone cooker that Mexican housewives have used for centuries. Tortillas this delicious could put restaurants that serve the packaged kind out of business. And these tortillas go wonderfully with the tomatillo and ancho chile salsas on every table.

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But when the margaritas arrived, the griping started. Caliente serves premium margaritas made from a wide choice of aged tequilas, hand-shaken and served on the rocks, rather than blended beach blanket-style. “Look,” said one of my friends, “they just slop the rim in a big pile of salt--my glass has salt in it.” But mine didn’t, and the Herradura Anejo mixed in made it taste just right.

The drinks made everyone hungry. The chile relleno came first, a fresh poblano chile with smoked Jack cheese, mesquite-grilled with a corn-pepper salsa. It was passed around and gobbled up without complaint. Chile corn cakes went fast, too--soft, blinilike rounds of cornmeal with a green chile sauce, sour cream, avocado and queso ranchero. Only the ceviche --fresh snapper and mahi-mahi marinated in lime and cilantro--languished in its cocktail glass. “This is so bland I can’t eat it,” said a member of my party. Perhaps it did need a little sharper bite.

We then decided to share a combination plate from the restaurant’s smokehouse: rotisserie chicken, mesquite-grilled ribs and barbecued sausage. Chickens turn slowly on the rotisserie near the completely open kitchen, and everyone’s mouth watered at the idea. But when the plate arrived, more griping ensued.

“The chicken is undercooked,” one of my friends said. I had to disagree. The chicken was perfect for my taste. It didn’t stop there. “This is just a hot dog,” the other one said as she bit into a spicy red sausage link. Again, I took exception. I loved it. Everyone, however, agreed that the meaty ribs had a strong, mesquite flavor--of course, not everyone likes that smoky taste.

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The smokehouse dinners come with incredibly delicious green corn tamales --soft, fragrant and full of little bits of fresh corn. Charro beans are also wonderful; they come in little pots and have the same smoky taste the ribs have. The barbecue also comes with a creamy, semi-sweet slaw. You’ll have to make a separate order to get the tomato-rich, fire-roasted onions. You’ll want to.

Ironically, the person who found the chicken undercooked sent back his fish--mesquite-grilled sea bass marinated in guajillo chiles--for the opposite reason. This time I couldn’t argue. Meanwhile, I was busy enjoying a specialty called pork chop adobado , a chop glazed with honey and achiote , or annato seed. This is sweeter and more complex than any pork chop I can think of.

A generous plate of fajitas come with guacamole and refried red beans. And there are big sandwiches of barbecued pork, beef or chicken served with gooey chili fries. One curiosity I didn’t try is called adobe pie: chicken, corn, and chili baked in a light tamale masa with a burnt red sauce. And then there are the standbys: burritos, enchiladas and tacos.

The one part of dinner that no one could argue with was dessert. Caliente’s are great. Burnt cream is a kind of liquefied creme brulee with sliced strawberries, and we couldn’t get enough of it. Margarita pie (without the salt) is excellent--homemade tequila-lime ice cream in a graham-cracker crust. An all-American apple crisp is served warm with a rich caramel sauce and thick whipped cream.

In fact, the desserts were so good that the gripers didn’t even bother to mention how stale the coffee was . . . until the next day.

Caliente is moderately priced. Antojitos (appetizers) are $1.50 to $6.95. Soups and salads are $2.50 to $6.75. Specials are $5.95 to $12.95. Smokehouse dishes are $8.95 to $12.95. There is a small, by-the-glass wine list and a good selection of beers.

CALIENTE

1910 Main St., Irvine

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(714) 975-1220

Open daily. Lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday through Saturday 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.

All major credit cards accepted.


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