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Dog-Gone Good

Ringing the Bell for dinner at Luchita's.

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Now playing: Sonoran cuisine. - WALTER  NOVAK

On a culinary landscape littered with talking chihuahuas, ersatz Aztec artifacts, and ruthlessly Americanized food, Luchita's is a refreshing tonic. Neither too homogenized to affront serious foodies nor too foreign to frighten off more placid palates, the Galindo family's Mexican restaurants have been a welcome addition to the Northeast Ohio dining scene for nearly two decades.

While you still won't find rustic items like menudo (tripe soup) and pozole (pork stew with hominy) or even creamy licuados (thin, fruity milkshakes) on Luchita's moderately priced menu, the choices go far beyond the overexposed tacos, burritos, and fajitas. A bounteous Ensalada de Nopales, for example, includes tender strips of cactus pad, sautéed in garlic and olive oil and tossed with sliced onion, tomato, avocado, and cilantro. Steamed pork shank is piqued with a chili salsa in Chamorros en Adovados. And shrimp are tossed with chayote, potatoes, zucchini, green beans, and masa dumplings in the Camarones en Pipian de Cacahuate.

The first Luchita's, a fairly gritty-looking spot on West 117th Street, opened in 1981 with a menu of authentic south-of-the-border specialties then largely unknown to Rust Belt diners. After a period of menu tinkering and the addition of more familiar Tex-Mex preparations, business finally took off, and Luchita's developed an enthusiastic following. As Cleveland palates grew more sophisticated, more traditional Mexican recipes began to creep back onto the menu, and in 1996, the family felt bold enough to open a second location, in the downtown Halle Building food court. A third Luchita's, on Shaker Square, opened in 1997, and while the downtown site has since folded, the family launched yet another restaurant in Mentor in October. When the urge for Luchita's dark, bitter mole and sparkling ceviche struck us, this newest addition to the Galindo empire is where we headed.

The new digs are spare and sleek and happily bereft of kitschy sombreros, serapes, and dangling piñatas. Instead, the major decorative touches come from the colorfully painted walls: a spicy blend of crimson and gold, punctuated by tall windows dressed in cobalt-blue mini-blinds. Solid, sensible wooden tables and chairs, topped with no-nonsense flatware and paper napkins, provide most of the seating, with a few banquettes off in one corner. The dining area, bar, and open kitchen are all part of the same large, rectangular room, and although a few half-walls break up the space, the well-lit restaurant is best suited to casual family dining rather than intimate tête-à-têtes.

The bar stocks more than a dozen fine sipping tequilas for savoring by the shot, at prices ranging from $3.50 for a commonplace Tequila Rose to $13 for a barrel-aged Porfidio Añejo. Margaritas, sangria, Mexican beers, a handful of West Coast wines, and a variety of nonalcoholic fruit-juice smoothies make for other interesting libations. A crisp Classic Margarita, served in a salt-rimmed tumbler, provided a sweet-and-sour counterpoint to fresh tortilla chips and a finely textured red salsa, full of cilantro and jalapeño-pepper flavor notes, which arrived only moments after we had taken our seats.

Luchita's menu, developed by Chef Reynaldo Galindo, is the same at all three locations. The chef, son of the restaurants' founder and namesake, frequently travels to Mexico to research and develop authentic regional recipes; nowadays, he focuses his cooking style on the culinary traditions of a specific region for about two months before changing the list of offerings. When we visited, the spotlight was on the Sonoran-style cocina; soon it will shift to the cooking of the Yucatan.

At the time of our visit, appetizer choices included a very good Queso Fundido, built around a thick slab of rich melted Chihuahua cheese, a creamy Muenster-like product that Galindo says was developed by a settlement of Mexican Mennonites nearly 200 years ago. The melted cheese was studded with crumbs of finely ground chorizo (a moderately peppery pork sausage) and topped with dabs of garlicky roasted poblano pepper, then served with warm flour tortillas. Also delicious were the Sopecitos à la Bandera: three handmade cornmeal "boats" layered with refried beans and a bit of chorizo, then colorfully finished with red and green salsas, separated by a band of white Mexican cream, to duplicate the colors of the Mexican flag. But the kitchen's finest first-course endeavor was a tongue-tingling ceviche of shrimp and extraordinarily tender squid, "cooked" in a fruity broth of lime and tomato juices spiked with cilantro, avocado, jalapeño, red onion, and bits of crunchy, vaguely sweet jicama. Subtly yet roundly flavored, the wonderful dish proved irresistible, even to the most wary eaters at the table. For ceviche fans, it was heavenly.

Among the entrées, Tinga de Pollo was similarly sophisticated. Here, chunks of tender shredded chicken were bathed in a smoky salsa of chipotle pepper, tomatillo, chorizo, and tomato, and topped with queso panela (similar to mozzarella) and a touch of thick homemade cream. The blend of tastes was as complex and intriguing as a first-rate drama. A pile of firm white rice and a portion of juicy black beans came on the side.

The flavors in Pollo en Mole Poblano -- roasted chicken blanketed with a fiercely flavorful mole -- were also seductive. The popular mole poblano sauce originated in the state of Puebla and has become a cornerstone of the Mexican kitchen, with nearly every region making its own version of the chocolate, pepper, and spice blend. At Luchita's, staffers take nearly two days to simmer their interpretation down to an intense brick-red reduction, just shy of a paste. When they are finished, the mole packs a powerful jolt of bitter, sweet, and fiery flavors that, ladled over a sheet of cardboard, could probably make even cellulose taste like food of the gods. Of course, at Luchita's they do no such thing. Instead, the deliciously complex sauce is spooned over a few pieces of roasted chicken and finished with a scattering of toasted sesame seeds; unfortunately, the well-done fowl, though tender, was far more bone than meat and failed to do justice to the scrumptious mole. (It might not be traditional, but a boneless breast would make a much more toothsome underpinning.)

Several other items also stumbled in their execution. A generously sized à la carte burrito, drenched in melted cheese and stuffed with plenty of finely ground beef, had a luscious texture but was tremendously salty. And the beef in an order of steak fajitas was dry and tough, although the dish was largely rescued by the smoky slices of tender-crisp onion and red and green pepper that accompanied it. Luckily for carnivorous diners, not all the beef-based dishes had limitations. For instance, three Mexico City tacos -- reasonably tender bits of marinated steak rolled in thin, tender corn tortillas and topped with shredded lettuce and pico de gallo -- were good, and a big dinner salad of iceberg lettuce, sliced onion, avocado, cilantro, and shredded beef, in a light housemade vinaigrette, didn't disappoint.

For dessert, there was a superlative homemade flan: a disk of cool, custardy goodness topped with a bit of brown sugar. And afterward, we wrapped our hands around steaming mugs of cinnamon-spiced decaf.

That, and the absence of small dogs cracking wise, was more than sufficient to put us in a festive frame of mind.

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