The cooking styles at an authentic Mexican restaurant and a new Thai eatery don't quite contrast like fire and ice. But the food at Palenque in Pacific Beach can be as fiery as the Yucatan sun, while the cooks at the new Lemon Grass in La Jolla frequently turn a cold shoulder to the idea of adding the heat specified by many traditional Thai recipes.
Several tropical cuisines--Mexican and Thai among them--employ incendiary spicing to provoke perspiration. The general rule is the hotter the seasoning, the cooler the diner.
Used wisely, hot seasoning also throws flavors into relief, while too much numbs the taste buds--but the issue of how much is too much is literally a matter of taste and just about impossible to define. In any case, its unexpected absence can be terribly disappointing.
Palenque, set back from the street on a busy stretch of Garnet Avenue, is the sort of place one can drive by a thousand times without noticing. Once found, however, Palenque makes a lasting impression with its high-style, regional Mexican cooking.
The proprietors, former Mexico City residents Leonardo and Maria Luisa Vilchis, have written a menu that favors the light, intriguing specialties from the southern half of Mexico, and serve it in a dining room finished with a thatched ceiling that implies a rustic hut or a jungle-choked archeological site. Menu notes explain that a palenque is "a primitive encirclement where cockfights take place, and that the name Palenque Bis has been assigned to the ruins of an ancient Mayan city.
The tacos sudados , appetizer-sized mouthfuls made of small, steamed corn tortillas folded around a choice of fillings, may have Mayan ancestry. The choice of fillings includes not only chicken, machaca , fried potatoes and the wonderfully complex sauce called mole poblana , but tinga , another dish specified as poblana since it originated in the city of Puebla. Tinga seems something like the Mexican answer to barbecue. It blends shredded pork with chorizo sausage and a salsa based on hot chipotle chilies. It is incredibly rich and perhaps better savored in a taco sudado than as an entree.
Among other starters are a queso fundido distinguished by the use of sharp manchego cheese; a dish of mushrooms sauteed with chilies and cilantro; a Mexican-style shrimp cocktail (cool but hot!) and chalupitas , or lightly fried miniature tortillas dressed with chicken, salsa, onions and cheese
The kitchen brews some mean soups, including a spirited and spicy sopa de tortilla of deep flavor, which it accents with a coverlet of grated sharp cheese, and an even better sopa de frijol. This last, an outstanding soup of great complexity, consists of pureed black beans, a variety of seasonings and a few strips of fried tortilla, which act rather like croutons.
The elegance typical of some cooking south of the border--and so rarely encountered in Mexican restaurants on this side--is abundantly present on the entree list. The menu describes panile as a recipe of one of the Vilchis' grandmothers. It is the sort of dish that concocts something extraordinary out of the most everyday ingredients, and consists simply of tortillas dipped in a sauce of crushed peanuts and dried chilies, with a nice piece of carne asada on the side for balance. The taste is at first bitter, then pungent, then hot, hotter and very hot indeed.
The salpicon is a fine choice for a hot day and can be regarded as a rather exotic chef's salad. A fine mix of shredded beef, lettuce and cheese with chopped potatoes, olives, avocado and tomato is seasoned with a potent vinaigrette and arranged over a bean tostada. All these flavors get along companionably, and this is immeasurably superior to the "tostada salads" offered elsewhere.
The entree list continues with chicken in two kinds of mole sauce (one with chocolate, the other a verde of crushed pumpkin seeds and radish leaves) and with enfrijoladas , or stuffed tortillas dressed with black bean sauce, sour cream and crumbled chorizo; chilaquiles , a spicy casserole of layered tortillas and stewed chicken; grilled trout in morita chili salsa; pescado almendrado , or fish filet baked in a subtle almond sauce; a chile relleno stuffed with the piquant beef hash called picadillo , and cerdo en chile cascabel , or chunks of pork stewed in a rich chili sauce.
Palenque keeps up the good work to the end by offering a choice of seven traditional desserts, including the complicated cake called pastel de tres leches .
The decor at La Jolla's Lemon Grass suggests not the Thai jungles and rain forests, but the cool sophistication for which this seaside neighborhood is famous. The dining room is light, bright and airy and distinguished by a handsome water sculpture, a sort of monolith of black stone with water cascading down on both polished sides. The restaurant is part of a state-wide chain.
The cooking also is rather cool, though, despite the many menu notations that denote dishes as "spicy hot." The brilliance of Thai cooking is in the manner in which it seasons some dishes subtly and illuminates others with handfuls of lemon grass, opal basil and fiery chilies, and it is disconcerting when these flavors fail to materialize. It would be fine if servers were to inquire how diners wished their dishes seasoned, but Lemon Grass seems to assume a general timidity.
The kitchen's greatest strength seems to be with such appetizers as katong thong , or pastry shells filled with a curried mince of chicken onions, and with the satays of beef and chicken, served with a mild but flavorful peanut sauce. The chan lam , or shrimp wrapped in noodles and a paste of chopped chicken and pork, are tasty enough, but do best with a minimum of the cloyingly sweet dipping sauce that accompanies them.
Among the entrees, the menu coyly noted of the patpong shrimp that "this dish is hot to trot," and it might have been had the advertised roasted chilies been added to the garnish of sauteed cashews. A panang beef curry, which can be a sweet but fiery delight, here consisted of tough sliced meat in a dull, brownish gravy with very little curry flavor and no heat at all. The "chicken flame" actually was afire when it arrived, a sort of Thai flambe that seemed more a public relations trick than a serious dish. When the flames died down, the bits of barbecued chicken had a sweetish flavor that denied the presence of the advertised "fragrant herbs and spices."
1653 Garnet Ave., Pacific Beach
Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday, closed Mondays.
Credit cards accepted.
Dinner for two, with a Mexican beer each, tax and tip, $25 to $45.
737 Pearl St., La Jolla
Lunch and dinner daily.
Credit cards accepted.
Dinner for two, including a Thai beer each, tax and tip, $30 to $50.