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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Hondo’s Only Looks Strait-Laced

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hondo’s is a batty little place, specializing in fare I’d be tempted to call nouvelle Southwest. And like Glendale itself, it might look pretty strait-laced from the outside.

But get a load of all the waiters in those beachy shirts and the buckets that hang upside down over the tables, pretending to be lampshades. And then eyeball the fun-loving office crowd that frequents this place. There is something wild lurking beneath the surface in all this.

We soon discover what that is. If you can tear your attention away from all the cactus, serapes and plastic flamingos, you discover that Hondo’s is actually attempting something original. Don’t be fooled by those tropical drinks with the plagiarized names like Baja Breeze and Sonora Sunset. The whole menu is full of creative, wildly bizarre dishes you’ll be curious to taste. Some of them even work.

As in most nouvelle Southwest restaurants, you’re given the opportunity to fill up on chips and salsa before the server has time to take your order. Here, thanks to a basket of warm, crunchy chips and a dark, smoky salsa, it is a temptation you won’t want to resist.

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Appetizers are found under a section misnamed “little Mexican plates,” possibly because the management may have decided that naming this section “little Mexican, Japanese and Thai plates” would have unglued the faithful.

Perhaps it would have. Thai-quitos is one of the weirdest dishes I’ve run across: rolled and deep-fried tortillas filled with minced chicken and accompanied by spicy wasabi and a Thai dipping sauce. Say what?

Then there is that traditional south-of-the-border treat, chicken satay--the grilled chicken skewers you find all over Southeast Asia. Hondo’s serves this dish with a sweet yellow curry sauce and an oddly appealing salsa made from fresh banana.

Potato rojas tacos are a dish that is original and still fits the Southwestern context. It’s terrific, steamy corn tortillas stuffed with seasoned diced potato and onion, with a topping of white cheese and roasted tomatillo salsa. Now that’s getting it right.

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Mexican pizza gets it right too: chicken jalapeno sausage with jack and Cheddar cheese plus several Mexican toppings, laid smartly atop a crisp flour tortilla. If Taco Bell made one half this good, even I would make a run for the border.

The many choices on this menu render a snap decision nearly impossible. If you want something simple, like a sandwich, you get to puzzle over such possibilities as blackened chicken, torta de carnitas , even a charbroiled skirt steak. All of them are unduly complicated by avocado, red onion and a red chili mayonnaise.

The traditional Cal-Mex side of the menu is more familiar, but many of the dishes have been gussied up to confuse you. The Hondo is a quesadilla with smoked chicken, Gouda cheese and papaya salsa (a combination that works like a charm). How about a veggie burrito? That would be a flour tortilla stuffed with mesquite-grilled vegetables and black beans.

Actually, the section called “platos Tex-Mexicanos” is my favorite because it is the most straightforward. And that’s where you find monster plates like the sizzling fajita: a good grilled flank steak and margarita chicken breast.

The best dish in the section is Corona fish tacos, where beer-battered, deep-fried halibut is served taco-style, dressed with lime and pico de gallo . The tacos are lightly fried, and the fish is fresh and sweet. They taste as good as the ones you get at stalls in Rosarito Beach.

The big loser? Easy. That would be the barbecue baby back ribs, honey-glazed and served with a mushy corn pudding. Everything on the plate is sticky-sweet and strangely spiced, altogether dreadful.

That’s not a shock, upon reflection. The biggest flaw in this kitchen is its liberal use of sugar. Even the jalapeno fries have been dipped in a sugared batter to make them brown up uniformly, making a greasy mess. Many other side dishes--corn pudding for one--are just plain too sweet.

Some of the desserts are too sweet as well. Warm bread pudding makes your teeth hurt, and the Mexican honey flan isn’t much better. I do like the traditional hot fudge brownie, and the good vanilla bean ice cream that comes on top. But it’s awfully . . . well, strait-laced.

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Recommended dishes: potato rojas tacos , $1.95; Mexican pizza, $3.95; fish tacos, $6.50; flank steak, $8.50; hot fudge brownie, $3.95.

Hondo’s, 241 N. Central Ave., Glendale, (818) 243-1701, is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, until midnight Fridays and Saturdays. Full bar. Parking lot. Visa, MasterCard and American Express accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $15 to $30.


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