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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Mesa Verde: A Walk on Mild Side of Southwestern : The dishes at the upscale Westside cafe are good-sized, edible and easy on the taste buds.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A few years ago, while driving home from Back East, I pulled into Santa Fe, N.M., around dinner time. I called an old high school friend who lived there and asked him if he knew of any wonderful Southwestern/Mexican restaurants. As a matter of fact, he said, he did know of such a restaurant--it offered the latest, most innovative Southwestern meals in town--and he would be delighted to meet me there for dinner.

I envisioned homemade tamales . . . pozole . . . sopapillas . . . empanitas ! His directions, however, led me to a cluster of chain restaurants surrounding a huge shopping mall in a newer suburb north of the city. The restaurant was a popular singles watering hole with a Mexican flair. There were waitresses in low-cut peasant dresses, pinatas , pitchers of frozen margaritas and large-screen TVs. My friend was waiting. “I know it’s a little noisy in here,” he said, “but it’s the only place I know where you can get this one fabulous new dish called . . . fajitas !”

I was reminded of this experience recently when I visited Mesa Verde Bar and Grill. I went hoping for good Southwestern cooking and found distillation thereof. Mesa Verde sits in the row of restaurants along the ground floor of the Westside Pavilion. Each of the restaurants ostensibly has a theme--Italian, Chinese, health food--but they are clearly designed to attract the most and repel the least number of mall shoppers.

This new, high-tech mildly upscale cafe has molded pegboard chairs, industrial carpeting, the requisite beams and semi-visible kitchen found in any number of young restaurants. The Southwestern flair comes almost exclusively from the neon in the window and the art on the walls, art that could be called electric-Southwestern art. A blend of Carlos Almaraz and black-velvet paintings, the works on display were cartoony florescent pastels on black paper. Van Morrison sang over the speakers at a rather loud volume.

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The menu is just what we Californian cuisineros expect in a Southland Southwestern bar and grill: a thematic jumble. In addition to ceviche , nachos and the ubiquitous fajitas, the menu offers blackened salmon, a sole in filo pastry and a jalapeno fettuccine with fresh cilantro pesto. If any of this sounds either too spicy or too trendy, don’t worry. Mesa Verde--in terms of taste, decor and flavor--is the mildest of restaurants.

We were greeted with chips and two salsas, both milder than the other. Hoping to spice things up, we ordered the jalapeno tuna dip; I certainly have never met a jalapeno that couldn’t--if devoured in big enough bites--bring a tear to my eye. This apertivo , however, had as much spicy heat--and flavor--as a tuna sandwich from a grade-school cafeteria. The guacamole, which was very good, was livelier.

The service was quite good and virtually invisible; during one visit our waiter was so mild-mannered and called so little attention to himself, we had trouble recalling which of the nice-looking young men on staff he was. Food came out promptly and our waters were topped off with such regularity, one friend said, “It’s too bad the food isn’t spicy, since we’re getting enough water to douse any fire.”

Overall, the food was quite palatable, but unremarkable. The chile relleno filled with goat cheese was the unanimous favorite: crispy, piquant, creamy and of generous size. The “Fiery Enchiladas,” on the other hand, couldn’t have been more of a disappointment: “Not for the timid,” the menu read, yet I found that they were not only many times blander than the relleno, they were little more than a big congealing wad of melted cheese.

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The soft shrimp tacos were pretty wonderful. The meat dishes--fajitas, mixed grill, and grilled chile chicken, grilled steak and peppers--were all good-sized, edible and easy on the taste buds.

The flan had good texture and taste, and an enormous wedge of bread pudding was bland but grand, except that there were too few raisins.

At the conclusion of dinner one night, as the busboy poured us some decaf, I asked him: “Is there any way to get truly hot salsa here?”

He grinned. “You have to tell the chef,” he said. “You want me to talk to him?”

No, no, we told him. We were full--as generic and mild as the food had been, it was made with good ingredients and was, for the most part, well-prepared. We’d had enough to eat.

Mesa Verde, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., Westside Pavilion; (213) 475-7378. Open Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a . m . to midnight. Full bar. American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa. Parking in Westside Pavilion. Valet parking after 6 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $15-$35.


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