Make That Mexico, Not New Mexico : Theme May Be Southwestern, but Food Isn't at Tortilla Beach

Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Cinco de Mayo will be the first anniversary of gaudy, festive Tortilla Beach. How appropriate. Spring is a particularly pleasant season here, with the patio warmed by the sun and gentle breezes wafting in from nearby Seal Beach.

However, owners Lori Neuss and Cary Hardwick, who also own Spaghettini next door, don't want us to think of Tortilla Beach as a Mexican restaurant. The soundtrack is more likely to be Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" than "Besame Mucho" or "Mi Desgracia." And the waiters like to inform you that the restaurant's theme is Southwestern, not Mexican.

Well, it's sorta Southwestern. Tortilla Beach borrows its erratic decor not only from the Southwest but from Mexico, the Caribbean and Surf City. The exterior is pale yellow, decorated with brightly striped awnings you can see from a long way off. Inside, there's a corrugated metal hood over the open kitchen, giving the interior a snazzy Third World glint. If the surfboards, plastic sharks and suchlike paraphernalia that festoon the walls are Southwestern, they must come from the hitherto unnoticed beaches of New Mexico.

The menu itself is basically Mexican. Pass the big copper Aztec sundial at the entrance and enter the main dining area, a colorful, post-modern space painted up in various shades of pastel. You will be greeted with a basket of corn chips and a couple of different salsas, just as you would in any number of Mexican chain restaurants.

You may actually be tempted to make a meal of these fresh, hot chips, as I was. They come in three varieties--red (colored with chili), blue and the usual yellow--and the salsa quemada (roasted salsa) is especially delicious. But when I looked at the menu and saw dishes such as chicken in mole sauce, blackened fish tacos and specials such as shrimp in garlic sauce, it appeared some restraint on the chips would be in order.

Don't call Tortilla Beach's drinks restrained though. They run to things like giant tumblers of pink lemonade or the 32-ounce margarita they call Big Kahuna. The latter is quite good, really: hand-shaken Sauza tequila with fresh lime juice, Triple Sec and Grand Marnier (for $1.50 more, you even get to keep the shaker). Just don't think about driving after meeting up with a Big Kahuna.

I had high hopes for an appetizer called the three-dip sampler, but the idea didn't live up to expectations. It's a platter containing individual dishes of chili con queso , guacamole and spicy tuna dip, three condiments that were born to keep a hot tortilla chip company. Alas, all three could have been better. Chili con queso --a melted cheese dip--needs more fire and less salt, the guacamole is slightly fizzy and the tuna dip (the best of the three, thanks to a bit of cilantro and chopped jalapeno) would be more at home between slices of white bread.

You'd be better off starting with spicy chicken tortilla soup, a fiery broth thickened with gooey Jack cheese, big chunks of chicken meat and about three times as many shredded tortillas as I've ever seen in a soup bowl. Shrimp cocktail Rosarita Beach style is chock full of fresh, clean-tasting peeled shrimp, plus chopped avocado, chilies, cilantro and onion. Shrimp Sonora salad, offered as a daily special, is a colorful mix of hearts of romaine, jicama, oranges, pasilla peppers and fresh shrimp, all bound by an exotic, anise-flavored vinaigrette.

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Naturally there are tacos, burritos and enchiladas, the best of them being the tacos based (remember, this is Tortilla Beach ) on flaky, neutral codfish, which is well suited to the deep fryer and to the various sauce combos you can impose on a taco shell. I particularly like the blackened fish taco, made with nicely blackened fish in a green chili cilantro sauce and topped with plenty of shredded cabbage.

Spicy shrimp enchilada is another good seafood item: Cajun shrimp, gooey cheese, spinach and mild green chilies offset by a strangely aromatic tomatillo sauce. By contrast, the carne asada burrito is impressive mostly for its considerable girth. There is little or no flavor to the grilled beef inside, and the rice that surrounds it is equally bland.

Blandness isn't the chicken mole ' s problem. The menu tells us that this "traditional Mexican sauce made from chilies, dried fruits, nuts and cocoa . . . sounds strange but is great." I'd say the exact opposite. It's sounds great, but what you get--a tired, frazzled chicken breast enveloped in a sweet, fruity sauce heavy on the chocolate and cinnamon--is definitely strange.

And the problems don't quite end there. Carnitas, the classic Mexican roast pork, comes up oily and frazzled too, after the partially shredded bits of pork are finished on a griddle (of all things). You'll also want to avoid the dry, gummy refried beans, especially when you have the alternative of tasty black beans to go with the sweet corn cake and tasty Mexican rice that accompany most of these dishes.

Even if you've been gorging yourself, make room for the sizzling apple pie, one of the more surprising desserts I've seen in a while. This concoction is a good wedge of apple pie served on a red-hot iron platter sizzling with buttery caramel sauce, the whole thing topped with vanilla ice cream. The caramel candies up on the dish, all the while being cooled by the ice cream as it melts like crazy. It's a great idea, and it is probably reason enough, weather aside, to pay a visit to this quirky new Mexican (not, in my book, New Mexican) place.

Tortilla Beach is moderately priced. Appetizers are $3.50 to $7.95. Soups and salads are $1.95 to $7.95. Other dishes are $6.95 to $11.95. The apple pie is $4.95.

* TORTILLA BEACH

* 3001 Old Ranch Parkway, Seal Beach.

* (310) 799-1805.

* Lunch and dinner, Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 4-10 p.m.

* American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

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