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CABO MEXICAN GRILL

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Cabo is part of the same Chicago-based restaurant development group that brought Red Star Tavern to Station Square, and out-and-about diners will notice some similarities in the decor. There's the same nightclub-lodge feel to it, with big dark red booths and rustic stone walls. Cabo is boomerang-shaped with a bar in one wing and an open kitchen in the middle. For fiesta atmosphere, they've hung black-and-white photos of Mexican scenes, a couple of stuffed sharks (or facsimiles thereof), and mounted a painted death's head above the bar (this is a festive skull like those one finds in Day of the Dead celebrations).

Our waitress brought chips and salsa right away. The chips were novelty-style, dyed a bright red, but were light and crisp. The salsa had a thick tomato base, and the intriguing flavor of roasted hot peppers. True to the advertising adage that you can't just eat one chip, we ordered more chips, this time with guacamole.

My companion and I often squabble over the correct recipe for guacamole, and I was pleased to discover Cabo's guac met my requirements. The bowl was filled with loosely mushed avocado to which no fillers (like sour cream) had been added. Small pieces of tomato and chunks of avocado gave the dip some heft. It had been lightly seasoned so that the creamy taste of the avocado remained. (I shy away from recipes where so much raw onion, garlic and peppers are added that the avocado merely becomes a suspending agent for those more powerful ingredients.)

We next split a bowl of tortilla soup. We were scraping the bowl when the waitress re-appeared to caution us we might find the soup "too hot." Too hot as in too spicy. Not at all we assured her. For my tastes, it had a nice kick, and I enjoyed picking the flavors out of the smooth puree: tomato, onion, garlic, maybe a little bean?

I had chosen one of the ensalada meals, the bizarrely named "Dos Gringos Chopped." It was meant to contain: tortilla chips, black beans, cojita cheese, tomatoes, corn, bacon, scallions, cucumber and mixed greens in a poblano honey-mustard dressing. For an extra two bucks, I asked for it with the fajita steak.

The salad looked great initially. There were a dozen strips of steak, and the whole thing was generously dusted in cojita cheese. To my surprise, the steak was cold (though it had only been an assumption on my part that it would be served hot off the grill), but it was tender, had a nice smoky flavor, and I like a cold-meat salad as much as a hot-meat salad.

Digging further into the salad had disappointing results. "Mixed greens" was a generous description -- the majority of the lettuce was iceberg, much of it the thick, chunky flavorless portions. It had been cut some time ago, as the edges were browned. There were a few pieces of limp leaf lettuce and some large portions of watercress with the thick, bitter stalks attached. In some places, there was simply the stalk. (I'd have pegged the watercress for a garnish, but for the fact that I discovered it deep in the salad.) I had the impression that the entire salad had been mixed and dressed much earlier, contributing to a certain sogginess. The few tiny shredded pieces of carrot and red cabbage didn't really make this much of a leafy mix. There were no scallions, pieces of bacon or cucumbers, though I did find several chunks of chicken. It tasted okay, but frankly, this was a salad that had been assembled quite carelessly.

The combination platter my companion ordered was muy grande with a beef enchilada, a chicken enchilada, a crispy beef taco, a tamale, and sides of rice and beans. [[Instead of the usual refried bean--check this]], Cabo serves pinto beans, cooked soft with chili seasoning in a small separate bowl. I don't mind lots of cheese on everything, but the tamale exterior was swamped with a huge dollop of sour cream. Sour cream is generally not served with tamales; perhaps the beans could go on the plate, and the sour cream in the bowl, so diners could apply it as they desired.

Both our meals were large, and although flan or Key lime pie did sound tasty, I demurred. After all that food, what I really needed was a nap. * * 1/2

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