Smoking Out Some Tasty Lamb and Ribs at Bandera

After the sun goes down, Bandera's brightly lit sign is really flash. The restaurant's name is trumpeted in red letters on a black stripe on a yellow rectangle.

Bandera has been open two months here and has been playing to a full house since day one. It's a spinoff of the Houston chain of "casual American" cuisine places (spit-roasted chicken, iron-skillet corn bread). As the menu tells us, Bandera has sister restaurants in Denver, Chicago, Los Altos, Calif., and Scottsdale, Ariz., with one soon to open in Sacramento.

One sign that this is a fully matured chain concept is a clear-cut visual style. Bandera is a dark, clubby, masculine cross between a ski lodge and the clubroom at a desert spa. The walls are paneled in knotty pine; the ceiling over the ever-crowded bar looks like a sophisticated version of Lincoln Logs. There are nicely varnished dark wooden tables in the red imitation-leather booths. Stately giant cactuses overlook the room dividers, suggesting the same Southwestern essence as that eye-catching sign out front.

If the sign doesn't draw you in, the wood-fired oven probably will. Chicken, lamb, beef and back ribs are roasting in this huge stone oven. You can smell the wood smoke several blocks down Pacific Coast Highway, and its intoxicating aroma permeates nearly everything you eat here.

Looking at the intelligently put together menu, you have reason to hope that this is a restaurant that knows its limitations and is able to concentrate on its strengths. For instance, it's encouraging to see that it doesn't list more than a reasonable total of eight entrees. It even thoughtfully lists a bone to take home for your dog (no charge).

But life is full of rude awakenings. Despite the well-thought-out concept, the flash decor and the good raw materials used in the kitchen, many dishes here come to the table unacceptably sweet, salty or oily. A friend told me that simply banning salt and sugar from Bandera's kitchen would elevate the place immeasurably. I couldn't agree more.

The kitchen doesn't skimp on fats and oils, either. The iron-skillet corn bread, served hot from the oven in a round pan and loaded with bits of crunchy sweet corn, is delicious. But if you eat more than one wedge, it feels terrifically heavy.

The menu is divided into "house selections" and "small plates." The latter are basically side dishes, although some, such as the roasted peanut coleslaw and the New Orleans-style grilled artichoke, could serve as appetizers. The artichoke is mushy but flavorful, and the coleslaw would be wonderful if the kitchen went a little easy on the sugar.

Another possible appetizer is the black bean chicken chili, but it's only so-so, I'm afraid. It's supposedly made with roasted New Mexico chiles, but you can't really taste them. And the globs of goat cheese (goat cheese!) scattered on the surface do not improve the flavor a bit.

The idea of the entree-sized chopped vegetable salad--mixing broccoli, fennel, Brussels sprouts, carrots, currants and almonds--is appealing, and the colorful vegetables have a wonderfully fresh snap. It would be a hit if the vinaigrette dressing contained about a third as much oil.

The wild mushroom ragout consists of sauteed morel, shiitake and oyster mushrooms piled on mashed potatoes, accompanied by a grilled sourdough crouton sprinkled with Reggiano-Parmigiano cheese. It was so oily that my guests literally couldn't take a second bite.

Luckily, a few of the entrees make up for these missteps. The best thing I've eaten here was sliced leg of lamb. The marinated lamb, slowly cooked on the rotisserie, is tender and juicy, done exactly as you request. Interestingly, it's the only dish here that isn't over-salted. Unfortunately, it isn't always available. I had to make three trips to the restaurant to get any.

Don't miss the Western-style beef back ribs. They are meaty, smoky and remarkably tender, slathered with a Kansas City-style hickory sauce. The spit-roasted chicken is just fine, nicely seasoned and fork-tender. The only complaint might be that the skin isn't crisp. There's a Boston Market across the street, so I'd say Bandera has a fight on its hands for chicken supremacy in this particular 'hood.

The Seattle-style barbecued salmon--a baby coho salmon marinated with light soy, garlic and turbinado sugar--is delicious but a touch sweet. I'm more dubious about its side dish, "very wild" rice salad. It's a cold, oily mix of wild rice, corn, chopped nuts and other textural wonders; you can't help but wonder why it isn't served hot.

The jambalaya, made with basmati rice, white meat chicken, andouille sausage and lots of file powder, is dry and stuffing-like. The apple-cured pork tenderloin comes in thick slabs, with good mashed potatoes and maddeningly sweet braised red cabbage on the side. The prime rib is certified Angus beef, roasted on the bone, and a top-notch cut. Alas, ours had been mercilessly dosed with salt.

There are only two desserts, a workmanlike creme bru^lee and a concoction of Oreo cookies and ice cream so sweet it will make your teeth hurt. Have a fresh-squeezed lemonade instead. It's great with a splash of raspberry syrup that makes it look like a fading sunset. They're good with colors, these people.

Bandera is high-end moderate. Small plates are $1.95 to $6.45. House selections are $5.75 to $8.25. Entrees are $10.75 to $17.25.


* 23201 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar

* (714) 673-3524.

* Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday, 5-11 p.m.; Saturday, 4:30-11 p.m., Sunday, 4:30-10 p.m.

* American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa.

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