Sol Food

Outdoor patio and basic Mexican tricks give El Segundo a good chance at the Fashion Show

El Segundo’s chicken tacos.

El Segundo’s chocolate cake.

It might be tempting to think of El Segundo Sol, which replaced Café Ba-Ba-Reeba earlier this year, as a metaphor for restaurant trends on the Strip. It’s not a valid one, though.

True, many restaurants have closed or scaled back this year due to competition, the economy and a general tightening of the purse strings. Charlie Trotter at the Palazzo is no more. Fleur de Lys at Mandalay Bay closed in early September to reopen as a tapas restaurant, the very concept that didn’t work at Fashion Show, where El Segundo Sol is housed.

So when Rich Melman, chairman of the Lettuce Entertain You restaurant enterprise, pulled the plug on his Spanish-themed restaurant and replaced it with an upscale Mexican concept, it wasn’t because of the recession. The real reason was that, despite a five-year effort, Spanish food at a mall on the Strip didn’t work.

The opening menu at Segundo reinforced that point. It had red-snapper Veracruz, rotisserie pork al pastor and other authentic dishes created by veteran chef Terry Lynch. And they didn’t take. So what we now have is a conventional Mexican restaurant where everyone comes for a margarita and a plate of fajitas, with a few tricks such as guacamole made in the middle of the restaurant.

Apparently, that’s what the public wants. On my last two visits, there were more people in the restaurant, on the patio and at the bar than I ever remember at Ba-Ba-Reeba.

And why not? In the autumn, when the weather is glorious, sitting out on this exposed patio along the bustling Strip is heaven. Guacamole is a nice place to start. It’s not bad guacamole, although it could use more soul—meaning more aggressive spicing. Appetizers are, in fact, the best part of the menu. Chipotle Caesar salad has lots of toasted pumpkin seeds and the market-fresh seviche goes wonderfully well with the warm, house-made tortilla chips. If you fancy queso fundido, the melted cheese dip, don’t have it with chorizo, which makes it unreasonably greasy.

And the best strategy is to order elotes from the Street Taco stand adjacent to the dining area. Elote is Spanish for corn on the cob, here nicely grilled, and slathered with chipotle mayo. It’s the one dish I’d be happy to eat over and over again.

Cheese crisps, a.k.a. Mexican pizzas, are just a gimmick. The best one has spicy ground beef and tastes like a Southwestern cheeseburger. Taco platters are served with usual suspect side dishes such as Mexican rice (workmanlike) and black beans (more interesting). The best meats are the uncommonly tender short ribs and the flavorful carne asada, made from marinated skirt steak.

My cilantro-and-lime-marinated jumbo shrimp fajitas were predictably flavorless. Let’s face it. If you aren’t paying for Santa Barbara or spotted prawns, you’re getting ’em frozen, pally.

And I like enchiladas about as much as a headache, so I can’t say how they were. But I can attest to the terrific prickly pear margarita, a nice red sangria (like they had at Ba-Ba-Reeba and the delicious chocolate cake for dessert.

All in all, this is a pretty slick operation, and probably the best match for a shopping mall. The question is, do you really want to eat in one?

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