You Don?t Know Juan

Juan’s Flaming Fajitas & Cantina, the excellent new hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint that no one’s talking about … yet!

Max?s menu picks

  • Shrimp ceviche, $9.95.
  • Sopa de fideos, $2.25-$3.95 (complimentary with most entr?es).
  • New Mexico enchiladas, $12.25.
  • Combo fajitas for two, $25.95.

Let?s stop all the grousing about our lack of good neighborhood Mexican joints. We have respectable places in Leticia?s and Chicken Itza, the eccentric Korean/Mexican fusion restaurant Komex and dozens of good taco emporia led by Tijuana import Tacos El Gordo. We even have interesting taco trucks, when you can find ?em.

Here?s the latest: Juan?s Flaming Fajitas & Cantina replaced Buzz BBQ in a mini-mall anchored by an In-N-Out Burger on West Tropicana Avenue, and fills a much-needed niche in the area. The new owners were clever, transforming the atmosphere simply by putting colorful serapes on the wall, and painting sombreros on cowboy silhouettes highlighting the desert-theme murals.

Everybody is ordering the flaming fajitas, served on sizzling iron plates mounted onto huge cast-iron cauldrons and lit on fire using shots of vodka. And yes, they?re delicious, although I find other things on this menu more interesting. The overall quality here isn?t going to set your world aflame; some of these dishes are under-spiced, and it?s clear the kitchen is playing to Anglos. But the food is consistently good and fairly priced.

I?m still craving more of the sopa de fideos, complimentary with entr?es, a noodle soup with a rich, tomato and spice broth. It alone is good enough to bring you back. Pozole, big pieces of hominy in that same good broth used with the fideos, is richly satisfying. There?s alb?ndigas as well, the classic Mexican meatball stew, which is hearty, but lacking soul and the cumin-tinged funk more ethnic Mexican kitchens prepare. From the appetizer list, choose the crunchy taquitos or a lemon-y shrimp ceviche. And don?t fill up on the great house salsa—a deep red, chunky salsa with just the right balance of sweet and heat—alongside a basket of hot chips and a molten bean dip.

More familiar Mexican favorites are hit and miss. New Mexico-style enchiladas are crepes rolled around spiced, ground beef, topped with a deliciously dusky red chile sauce, a dish that reminds me of something at Horseman?s Haven Caf?, in Santa Fe. But the chile verde is a bland pretender by comparison. Oh, the meat has a nice texture, and the sauce is tasty in a Dinty Moore sort of way. Did someone forget to season this stuff?

Now, about that signature dish, the flaming fajitas: Choices are chicken, shrimp, pork or beef, and you really can?t go wrong, especially if you order the combination for two, since you get to combine any two meats.

The beef is lean and tender, the shrimp firm and sweet. On the platter, there is a mess of onions, green and red peppers, and, on the side, a generous garnish of pico de gallo, real sour cream and a house-made guacamole. Another plus are the sides: one of the city?s best Mexican rice pilafs and sloppy refried beans slathered with melted cheese. It?s actually quite the feast.

There are several TV screens in here, which give the restaurant the ambience of a sports bar, and a separate pub, to which you can repair for your Dos Equis, your slushy tequila-challenged margarita or your oily queso fundido with tortilla chips. But don?t expect to run into the ?Most Interesting Man in the World.? This ain?t his hood.

Juan?s Flaming Fajitas

9640 W. Tropicana Ave. 823-1400. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon-Thu and Sun, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri-Sat. Dinner for two, $29-$55.

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