Southwestern Lives!

Southwestern went out so long ago Pearl Jam was still big. This came as a relief to those of us sick of salmon-colored walls with teal touches and those morose bull skulls. But there are folks more grateful than you and I: the restaurant owners who couldn't wait for the fad to die.

When Southwestern cuisine first appeared in the mid-'80s, it was more exciting than Heather Graham in Boogie Nights. Wizards o' the skillet (including our very own David Wilhelm, who founded the still popular Chimayo in Fashion Island) took the simple Sonoran, Tex-Mex and New Mexican cuisines, threw them together, added a little spark and creativity, and—boo-yah!—there was some damn good Southwestern cooking going on.

But it got trendy fast, and then came the red, white and blue corn tortilla chips—the death knell for any serious culinary intent. Poblano this, chipotle that; no one knew what the hell he or she was eating, but it seemed cool, even though some of it was high-priced fast food. I, too, became jaded, until two years ago, when I ventured south into the motherland and tasted the real stuff and mourned what we had wasted.

I'm happy to report that a place in downtown Fullerton dares to take what was good about Southwestern cuisine and treat it with the care and seriousness it deserves. Café Hidalgo opened last year, and my friends who live near downtown say it's the best thing to happen there in years.

This place restores my faith in all things Southwestern. No salmon or teal to be found, the interior is a sexy mix of chile-powder-colored walls, terra-cotta tile floors and thick wood furniture. At night, candles flicker in the warm light, and the windows open onto the patio and the downtown pulse. It's one of the most inviting restaurants I've been to in years.

But the food is the star here, and the kitchen doesn't try any cute Southwestern gimmicks. First of all, there are no tri-colored chips. In fact, there are no chips at all, just some warm flour tortillas to open the meal.

While the entrées have a Southwestern flavor, the appetizers (read: tapas) lean toward Spain. There's sangria to help with the ceviche Andaluz, sautéed calamari and Spanish ratatouille. My calamari was unlike any other I had eaten; it looked like thick pasta in its poblano cream sauce.

Southwestern touches are found on the seafood-heavy main courses. It's chile pepper that crusts the pepper-crusted ahi tuna, and the same excellent poblano cream sauce covers grilled halibut. Each day, the shrimp and grilled-salmon entrées are prepared differently. (On the night I was there, the grilled shrimp swam in the poblano cream sauce. It was dark, and I scribbled my notes, so I can't tell you how the salmon was prepared. But I tried it, and it was damn good.)

Then there's the guajillo pepper steak, which alone is the herald's call that Southwestern is alive and well. A grilled ribeye is covered with a bitter, spicy guajillo chile sauce. Only a good steak can stand up to the power of this sauce, and the two are perfect together. This steak made the top-notch garlic mashed potatoes and grilled zucchini seem like strangers on the plate.

Café Hidalgo has become a real locals' restaurant in a part of the county that has been energized by the success of fabulous new clubs. Come, but leave the bolo tie in the closet.

Café Hidalgo, located at 305 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, is open Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. N 5:30-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. N 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Sun., 5:30-9 p.m. (714) 447-3202. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $25, food only. All major credit cards accepted.

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