Bolero Combines Fine Food, Outdoor Dining

A guest at Bolero pushed away his empty plate, settled comfortably in his chair and said, more than half facetiously, "This is without question the best Mexican restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe."

Of course, Bolero also happens to be the only Mexican restaurant in this chic, semirural enclave. Neither the ultra- haute Mille Fleurs, which is just across the street, nor the flowery Delicias, situated a couple of blocks to the east, serves much in the way of frijoles .

Thus Bolero captures the Mexican laurel in Rancho Santa Fe by default, but it probably would win the wreath on merit were there competition: The cooking proceeds quite nicely, and the setting is not just enormously attractive, but appealing.

It is this setting, in fact, that primarily sets this Southern California-style Mexican restaurant apart from its many North County cousins. Bolero spills from a tiny main room, which is somewhat open to the elements, onto the forecourt of one of the distinctive, diminutive shopping arcades typical in downtown Rancho Santa Fe. Given the chilly evenings that predominate at most times of year and the famous (and utterly unfathomable) reluctance of folk hereabouts to dine outdoors, it seems more than daring to open an eatery that is essentially without walls. But the lushly open feel and the sense of dining in a garden make the experiment work. Servers offer to bring a portable heater to the table, but, on a recent mid-May night, jackets sufficed.

As small as the place may be, it boasts a full bar (small, but well-populated) and the waiters tout the "excellent" margaritas. These drinks are better than some, and shaken rather than blenderized into slush, but they fall short of excellence and seem steeply priced at $4.50.

The menu itself is quite reasonably priced, and has but one drawback: the odd lack of what might be called a gustatory preface. With the exceptions of an iceberg lettuce and vegetable salad and a plate of reasonably good guacamole with chips, the menu declines to offer starters of any sort--there are no soups, no appetizers, no nada . In the same vein, dessert is just barely possible, and takes the form of cheesecake prepared by an outside supplier; should you want flan or some other light sweet, forget it. Thus a meal consists of the entree alone, preceded solely by the obligatory tortilla chips and moderately seasoned salsa.

Seafood plays a minor role on the menu and appears first as part of the amusingly named ensalada Nicoise, an entree-sized takeoff on the French classic that tops a bowl of lettuce, green beans, tomatoes, sliced eggs and potatoes with a piece of broiled fish; in the French version, the seafood would be tuna, generally taken straight from the can.

The tacos de mariscos , one of the lighter offerings, pairs a fish taco with a shrimp taco. The fish side of the offering tasted rather flat, and both of these "soft" tacos, folded in flour tortillas, were rather soggy. The shrimp Rio Grande burrito, on the other hand, said something for the kitchen, the sizable flour tortilla wrapped around a wonderfully well-flavored saute of succulent shrimp, onions, bell peppers and tomato sauce. Spread thinly over the top, what was described as a salsa verde had a sweet, intriguing flavor unlike that of what one normally accepts as salsa verde , but, although not even vaguely spicy, it was certainly delicious.

Bolero turns out a nice, savory carne asada , served plain on a large, generously garnished platter, or shredded and seasoned fajitas -style and stirred with onions, peppers and tomatoes. Either is good, depending on personal preferences, but the fajitas seem especially appealing. The menu also offers fajitas of chicken or shrimp.

The plates listed under the "Especialidades del Patio" heading seem somewhat cautiously apportioned (these combinations include the "Acapulco" pairing of a chile relleno with a chicken taco and the tostada suprema , a high-rising concoction mounded in a crisp tortilla shell), while the plates listed as "Favoritos de Mexico" tend to be quite large. Garnishes in most cases include a mild, Mexican-style rice and well-textured beans thinly blanketed with melted cheese; some dishes also offer hot flour tortillas and spoons of guacamole and "light" sour cream.

Other choices include pollo asado , or marinated, broiled breast of chicken; a torta , or sandwich, of sliced New York steak topped with salsa, beans, lettuce and guacamole; a crisply fried chimichanga stuffed with beans and a choice of chicken or beef, and a hamburger dressed with salsas and guacamole. Interestingly enough, French fries accompany this South-of-the-border burger.

BOLERO

6024 Paseo Delicias

Rancho Santa Fe

Calls: 756-5157

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Cost: Entrees $7.95 to $12.95; dinner for two, including a margarita each, tax and tip, about $30 to $50

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