Owl Bar's shadow hangs over an ambitious Taos Southwest Cafe

RESTAURANTS

August 13, 1993|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Restaurant Critic

Taos Southwest Cafe

Where: The Belvedere, 1 E. Chase St.

Hours: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Credit cards accepted: Major credit cards

Features: Southwest cuisine

Non-smoking section? yes

Call: (410) 539-1355

Prices: Appetizers, $2.95-$6.95; entrees, $6.95-$14.95

**

What's odd about the new Taos Southwest Cafe is that it's still the old Owl Bar. The stained glass owls, the magnificent room-length bar, the paneled walls and exposed brick, the wooden booths -- it's all still there. The place still carries the weigh of its history as one of the city's great nightspots.

Alas, it's fallen on hard times since the Owl Bar's glory days. There's a pool table near the bar, and the music is hard and loud. On a week night many of the tables are empty.

In an effort to inject a little life into the place, the owners have switched from the classic bar fare that used to be offered to what they call "new American Southwest" cuisine. Not a bad idea. Southwest cuisine is an established draw, as well-beloved these days as hamburgers and crab cakes -- assuming that by Southwest cuisine you mean fajitas and quesadillas and nachos, of course. All washed down by margaritas.

But the Taos Cafe isn't just trying to be a midtown Chi-Chi's. Ihas aspirations. You can see it with a dish like grilled breast of duck with fresh basil goat cheese or spicy Jamaican fried squid with citrus salsa and cilantro bean salad. (I'm not sure exactly how the latter fits into the Southwestern motif, but there it is.) At the same time, the owners have filled out the menu with Southwest pizzas and sandwiches that have names like the El Paso.

The pizzas are pizzas in name only. We tried the Sidewinder, a 12-inch tortilla with refried beans, Monterey Jack and Cheddar, chilies, fresh tomatoes and salsa. Think nachos rather than pizza, and you'll get a better idea of what they're like.

We rapidly realized that simple is best at the Taos Cafe. Th waiter recommended the "Rancher's Ribeye Steak," which turned out to be the highlight of our meal. It was a tender cut, not prime beef but grilled nicely with roasted chiles and served with fried onion rings and a fat baked potato.

Chicken and beef fajitas were pedestrian, with one serious flaw: their tortillas were so crisp-edged you couldn't roll them up.

Shrimp over angel hair pasta with a Southwestern flavor wersoft and smelled fishy. The waiter told us later there was no ice cream because the freezer was "still broken," so maybe that was why the shrimp were off.

A Tucson duck appetizer sounded intriguing, but the grilled breast of duck wrapped in a warm flour tortilla was so drenched in barbecue sauce you couldn't taste anything else. Try instead sausage Santa Fe, with sauteed slices of spicy sausage flavored with orange and arranged with plum tomatoes and goat cheese.

Because the freezer was still broken, we couldn't get the deep fried banana spring roll, the brownie sundae or the butterscotch sopapilla for dessert. We settled for a pecan pie and citrus macadamia nut cheesecake, neither made on the premises and neither of which is going to make the Taos Cafe's reputation.

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