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Presto Chimi-Chango

When I was living in California, back in the early '90s, the competition for waitressing jobs was tough; the aspiring actors, singers, and dancers had more experience than I did. So when I was offered a position at Ricco's, a new Italian joint, I broke a cardinal rule by taking a job with a struggling, start-up operation. The lunchtime crowd was decent, but dinnertime was dismal, as were the tips. The restaurant was about to go out of business.

But Ricco, the owner, came up with a plan. He put an ad in the local paper that read: "Kids, make your own pizzas!" Within days the restaurant was inundated with young families. While the tots tossed handfuls of mozzarella and pepperoni, their parents swilled chianti and stuffed their faces with fettuccine. We servers weren't happy to be suddenly saddled with baby-sitting duties, but at least we were bringing home some bucks. The boost in business also attracted restaurant critics, who wrote positive prose. But truth be told, Ricco was a mediocre cook, and the wait staff was less than stellar. The gimmick worked for a while, but ultimately the restaurant didn't. After about a year, even Ricco was looking for a job.

I was reminded of Ricco's when I dined at Santiago's, a busy Mexican restaurant in Pembroke Pines. The proprietors, the Gorman family, took a page from a similar book of tricks: They hired magician Timm Metivier to entertain the clientele every Friday night. Going from table to table, he cracks jokes, performs sleight-of-hand tricks with playing cards, makes money levitate, and twists balloons into hats for the little ones. As a result of his talents, the place crawls like a day care center with kids, whose hats pop as often as the complimentary corn chips are dipped in the smoky, homemade salsa.

I don't mind breaking bread in the company of children, but next time I won't bring guests who refer to kids as "ankle biters." What I do find annoying is a magician who overstays his welcome. Metivier arrived at our table at the same time as our chicken nacho appetizer, and he insisted on performing two time-consuming tricks. If I'd waited until his act were over to dive into the dish, I could have blamed him for our cold nachos; but right from the start, they tasted as if they'd been stuck in the kitchen for a while. Even worse, the generous portions of white-meat chicken and garnishes of lettuce, tomato, and jalapeno peppers rolled off the chips, because there was hardly any melted cheese to anchor them.

I wasn't the only one distracted by the magician. Our server had to be reminded twice to bring us a side of what turned out to be somewhat sour guacamole, he failed to deliver the chili-honey chicken wings we ordered, and requests for hot sauce took ten minutes to fill. I can empathize -- he was clearly overwhelmed -- but I can't excuse the poor service. Perhaps the Gormans should hire extra staff not only for Friday nights but also for Wednesday and Thursday, when a mariachi band strolls around.

Most of the flaws we found in the food and service could easily be fixed. For instance, the fajita plates are too hot. The night we were there, the marlin fajitas, a house specialty, were overdone. The sauteed onions and peppers were burned on one side, and the chunks of marlin, marinated in a sweet, teriyaki-flavored sauce, were stuck to the plate. Sides of rust-colored Mexican rice and refried beans were also portioned on the plate. Like the flour tortillas, shredded cheese, guacamole, and pico de gallo, the rice and beans -- which accompany most entrees -- should be served separately. Otherwise you end up with rice kernels as hard as teeth and beans that start to resemble the desert in a dry spell.

The Caribbean twist given to the fajitas is no accident. Originally from New Mexico, the Gormans developed a Mexican-based menu with island flourishes, such as marlin, while they were running Santiago's on the Cayman Islands for fourteen years. After they lost their lease in 1996, they moved the operation to Pembroke Pines, which is close to other family members. The menu, however, hasn't changed much. A house salad of iceberg lettuce, chopped tomato, and red onion, for example, was heightened by a rich, homemade mango-yogurt dressing.

Pollo de Santiago, a main course, wasn't as successful. While the boneless, skinless, seared chicken breast retained a hint of its sweet pepper-mustard marinade, it was a bit plain and dry. Plump plantains, black beans, and white rice upped the ante a bit, despite the fact that the beans were on the verge of disintegration.

The rest of the menu consists mostly of familiar Mexican fare, and some of it falls short. A savory ground-beef burrito was large and filling, but the flour tortilla was tough. And the beef or chicken tacos, stuffed with lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese, were crisp but needed some hot-sauce doctoring.

The Gormans import dried chimayo chili to make their salsa and frozen green chilies to flavor another signature dish, the New Mexico green chili stew. We thoroughly enjoyed this soupy combination of roasted green chilies, chunks of pork, pinto beans, and tomatoes. The dish was large, and it had a bit of a kick, which we tempered with the fresh flour tortillas served alongside.

A chunky gazpacho also offered some zest, thanks to the onions. The cold vegetable soup, thick with tomatoes and cucumbers and served with a square of pasty cornbread, was refreshing. A vegetarian might be tempted to order the soup, along with a salad, as an entree. If not, going meatless is still easy at Santiago's: A four-item vegetarian menu includes veggie fajitas, a bean burrito platter, and a sauteed vegetable taco dinner.

We also liked an appetizer of Mexican roasted garlic. The head of garlic had been baked with Spanish olive oil, its top lopped off to reveal the individual cloves. Nutty and soft, they were perfect for spreading on the triangles of cheese quesadilla. Though the dish was served cold, like the nachos, we ate with gusto as Metivier performed his best trick, then (thankfully) disappeared.

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against giveaways and gimmicks, especially those that attract kids. In fact, I long for the days when bank tellers handed out lollipops and dentists gave away toothbrushes. Santiago's is not a Chuck E. Cheese, where kids run the show, but it is family-friendly: The cheerful synthetic tablecloths are easily wiped down, a flat terra cotta-colored rug catches the crumbs, kids get to sit in sassy seats and highchairs, and kitschy Mexican souvenirs are crammed onto shelves for atmosphere. And, despite my feelings, the magician and mariachi bands are a bonus. "After all," manager Jim Gorman says, "we have to work here. We might as well make it fun."

I agree. But fun doesn't compensate for orders that never arrive or dishes that linger in the kitchen when they should be served promptly. When you go to a place to eat, fun is no substitute for food.

Santiago's. 17185 Pines Blvd., Pembroke Pines, 954-432-0041. Dinner nightly from 4 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until midnight.

Chicken nachos
New Mexico green chili stew
Pollo de Santiago
Marlin fajitas

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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