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Sexless Mex

Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy is where the old Annie's Santa Fe crowd might go now that everyone has kids.


My friend Beatriz, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, can remember the first time she ate in a corporate-owned Mexican restaurant. "It was Annie's Santa Fe on the Country Club Plaza, and it was really fun, an interesting atmosphere and energy," she says. "The menu had dishes that I, as a Mexican-American, had never seen before. Lots of fried foods. You didn't walk out of the place talking about the food but about the atmosphere of the restaurant."

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Kansas City-based restaurant chain Gilbert-Robinson was having great success with the Annie's Santa Fe concept, which blended a sort of swinging-singles bar -- with heavy emphasis on the frosty margaritas and fruity sangria -- with a menu that another friend remembers as "Sex-Mex," a polyglot of Mexican and ethnic flavors. The 1976 menu offered tortilla pizzas, hamburgers topped with guacamole, tortillas rolled around crabmeat, and baked lemon soufflé.

At the same time, another national chain, Kentucky-based Chi-Chi's, was targeting the same young, hip audience. Both restaurant chains were considered really hot and trendy at the height of the disco era. Until the flashy new upstarts arrived on the scene, most Mexican restaurants were either humble mom-and-pop operations or fast-food joints like Taco Bell. One of those family-owned Mexican restaurants, the 50-year-old Acapulco Mexican Restaurant (owned by Beatriz's uncle, Rafael Jimenez), has easily outlasted most of its corporate-owned rivals -- Annie's Santa Fe is long defunct, and the badly aging Chi-Chi's has filed for bankruptcy.

But a new, big-name player returned to the scene when the Texas-based Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy opened in the Zona Rosa shopping district last December. By local Mexican-restaurant standards, the upscale Abuelo's seems as glamorous and palatial as one of the mansions in Mexico City's Las Lomas neighborhood. There's none of the raucous noise and clatter that was an essential part of the old Chi-Chi's personality. Instead, the dramatic dining room -- with its carved-stone statue of St. Francis of Assisi, its dignified columns, its Diego Rivera-inspired murals, its flickering light fixtures -- is discreetly quiet, even on a busy night.

In this more conservative day and age, a concept like Abuelo's (the Spanish word for grandfather) brilliantly combines family values -- the restaurant is extremely child-friendly -- with the illusion of high culture and good taste. The Disney version of good taste, that is: glossy surfaces, cloth napkins, expensive china, familiar flavors and deft service. Plates don't clatter, waiters are outfitted in clerical black, and the bar has all the sex appeal of a cloistered chapel.

One Sunday afternoon, as I ate with Bob and Ned, the whole dining room seemed to have an almost reverential spirit. "It's the after-church crowd," Ned concluded after giving other customers the once-over. "They're still on good behavior."

He wasn't, of course. After guzzling a margarita and pronouncing the pale orange fundido del mar "more like a soup than a dipping sauce," Ned decided that our tall, gruff-voiced server "looked like he was hungover."

He wasn't a very good waiter. I wasn't surprised to hear, during my next visit to the restaurant (on a weeknight with Bob and Jennifer), that he had been excommunicated from the restaurant. That night's peppy waiter was so incredibly chatty (goaded on by Bob, I'm afraid) that a manager finally came over to find out why he was neglecting his other tables. I wish I could remember all of the restaurant gossip he confessed to us, but I was focused on grabbing as much chopped shrimp as I could from our coctel de camerones -- with its buttery chunks of avocado, cilantro and tomato, more like a chop salad than a shrimp cocktail -- before my dining companions caught on.

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