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SOUTHWEST BISTRO

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A relatively warm New Year's Eve spurred our trip to Downtown to enjoy the First Night activities. I'd be lying if I didn't confess we spent most of our sojourn inside the toasty, dry interior of the Southwest Bistro gazing out the window at the hardier revelers. A steady stream of people in silly hats and neon-glowing necklaces proved a lively backdrop to our lively meal -- and not just as spied through the front window: A number stopped in this popular downtown eatery to wish the staff "Happy New Year."

My New Year's resolution No. 1: Avoid getting filled up on bread, even if it's wonderful crusty bread rolls, which go down all the easier with the signature house spread, a sweet whipped concoction with peppers and garlic. Resolution No. 2: All new healthy eating plans naturally begin with a salad.

The menu description "mixed greens" hardly does justice to the colorful and tasty salad served here. Atop the greens are roasted red peppers, golden raisins, Mandarin orange segments, honey-roasted pecans, soft goat cheese and crunchy jicama (a tuber popular south of the border whose raw meat has a subtle sweet flavor like a melon). From the three vinaigrette dressings -- balsamic, raspberry and cilantro -- I chose cilantro to keep with the southwestern feel. This was a creamy dressing with quite a powerful flavor, so I was glad it had been served on the side so I could apply it as desired.

Even though the word "peppers" appears all over the menu, rest assured these are varieties of the sweeter -- not spicy hot -- peppers. My companion began with the stuffed poblano peppers appetizers. Poblano peppers are smaller and narrower than a bell pepper, and only a little bit spicier. (On the chili heat scale of 1 to 10, a bell pepper is a 1 or 2, the poblano a mere 3.) Poblanos are often smoked, as these were, which lends a nice "campfire" taste to them. The peppers were amply stuffed with chorizo (a sweet yet slightly spicy pork sausage) and topped with a ranchera sauce (a seasoned tomato-based sauce, like a Tex-Mex marinara) and cheese.

My companion -- an occasional lunch-time diner here -- felt it unlucky on the last day of the year to order something new and fell back on his old favorite, the blackened catfish. The fish filet had a pleasing grilled flavor, and was thankfully not "too black." I don't care for fish that's been blackened so thoroughly that all one tastes is the charred exterior. This catfish had a nice balance between smoke and fish. The catfish sat atop an interesting "dish": a red pepper crepe that was certainly fancier and tastier than simply using the more traditional tortilla. For additional seasoning, this all sat in a sauce made from ancho chiles (the dried version of the poblano chili).

I decided to end 2002 with a big plate of meat, and ordered the mixed grill, which offered sausage, beef filet and quail. The sausage was a chicken-apple blend and was just divine: sweet, full of apple flavor, and not the least bit greasy or grisly (common sausage crimes). Quail is the smallest of the game birds, and its appearance never fails to charm me with its plump little breast and teeny-tiny legs. And despite its small size, the quail does yield a decent portion of flavorful darkish meat beneath its crispy skin. The sausage, quail and grilled beef were all topped with a roasted red pepper "jelly" (not a gelatinous jelly, but more like a chutney) that added just the right dash of south-of-the-border flair to the meats.

Both entrees came with the colorful selection of side dishes: green beans, carrots pureed with ginger (so sweet and smooth my companion initially mistook them for mashed sweet potatoes), and a slab of Tex-Mex style grits. These weren't the breakfast-style dollop of grits; they'd been formed in a pan (like polenta often is) and then topped with a smoky tomato salsa and cheese.

In the odd moments when the chatter of the busy night died down, from the sound system came the voice of that Texas troubadour who didn't make it to see this New Year's Eve, Waylon Jennings, bemoaning his troubles. It was frankly hard to empathize: We were dry, well fed and having a great time. * * *

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