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Restaurant Reviews

You Too Can Yucatan

In this global day and age, I'm irked when a restaurant refuses to serve a menu item because it's "out of season." Even discounting frozen and canned products, it's entirely possible to source just about anything this century and get it fresh and delicious. For instance, mangoes may not be in season in Florida right now -- in fact, my trees are just starting to bloom -- but Costa Rica has been shipping us fruit all winter. They may not be the same breeds of mangoes we groom in our back yards, but they're in the family. Chop 'em up, put 'em in a sauce, and I guarantee most diners wouldn't be able to identify the species anyway.

On the other hand, I'm thrilled when a restaurant goes out of its way not just to serve a dish that uses an off-season ingredient but also to ensure the quality of that ingredient. Many of our Mexican eateries, for example, rather than pay expensive prices for California avocados, will substitute frozen pulp for the real thing in guacamole. It's an understandable practice, but it usually results in subpar guac.

Yucatan Mexican Grill in Deerfield Beach, though, presents guacamole with large, creamy chunks that are perfectly ripe, along with crisp, homemade chips. To be honest, I didn't expect such nicely blended, buttery stuff: With its yellow walls and busy hacienda décor, Yucatan has the look and feel of a chain restaurant. But it's actually a family-run place, and after poking through the guacamole, I found it easy to imagine the kitchen staff sorting through the produce and picking out the best of the fruit for presentation -- not because they have to but because they want to. Nor was the guacamole just a fluke -- outstanding avocado slices accompanied a cool salad of marinated black beans topped by juicy strips of grilled chicken.

Unfortunately, not every dish maintains the standards set by the guacamole. Seafood in particular could use some of that discerning attention. A main course of grilled shrimp, served over yellow rice with a plethora of vegetables, suffered from a telltale taste of iodine. The veggies -- broccoli, cauliflower, squash, and onion -- were plentiful and good, however, and the rice was moist without being mushy. Supreme fajitas also had highs and lows. A combination of all the meats and seafood offered included beef, chicken, shrimp, and mahi-mahi. The beef and chicken were succulent and decidedly palatable, enhanced by grilled bell peppers and onions. But the shrimp and fish were a touch gray with age, the former mushy and the latter tough and fishy-tasting.

Supreme nachos, another combination platter composed of about six variations on the popular appetizer theme, were a better choice, and not only because the seafood on one version was limited to lump crabmeat. Most of the nachos, made from the same crunchy chips that graced the table with a finely chopped salsa at the beginning of the meal, were smothered in rich refried beans and an assortment of ground beef, shredded beef, and shredded chicken. Blanketed with cheese and accompanied by sour cream, this starter could be consumed as a not-so-light-after-all meal. For a healthier portion of the stewy, shredded beef, which was more like moist chunks of steak, check out beef chilaquiles (spelled chiaquiles on the menu). The waiter might not know what they are, but these fried and then simmered corn tortillas are among the more popular dishes in Mexico (with plenty of regional variations). Here, the chilaquiles were dressed in a drenching tomato-chili sauce that could have, like the salsa, used a bit more heat. But the braised beef and slightly chewy tortillas had a wonderful point-counterpoint texture working, and overall this was the best dish we sampled.

As palatable as the food is -- or in some cases, isn't -- don't expect Yucatecan regional cooking. The menu roams from "Spanish" specialties to typical Mexican enchiladas, chimichangas, and burritos. Only in items like the chilaquiles will you find even a hint of the "holy trinity" of the Yucatán Peninsula: recado rojo, recado de bistec, and recado Negro. Similar to curries or moles, these seasoning pastes vary from cook to cook but essentially form a basis for the Yucatecan cuisine, which offers dishes that range from sopa de lima (tortilla soup served with a squeeze of bitter lime) to marinated meats wrapped in banana leaves and roasted in hand-dug pibes (pit barbecues). But around Yucatan Mexican Grill, the only pibes you're likely to encounter are the sinkholes that randomly form on our roadways.

Certainly, the Yucatán's famed pumpkinseed marzipan for dessert is hardly in the realm of possibility. At least, not while there's fried ice cream to be had, it seems. But while I can fault Yucatan Mexican Grill for iffy fish and a bland assortment of the usual suspects, I commend them for not only tolerating families with children but for catering to them. Contrary to popular belief, I take my children with me on reviews extremely rarely these days. Don't get me wrong -- I'm still a proponent of dining with kids. But mine can't seem to sit still, and while they usually have a great time romping around, I can eat more comfortably standing up at home than in a dining room.

That said, Yucatan's kids menu, which yields a very good tomato-cheese quesadilla and generous portions of all-white-meat chicken tenders, kept some little tushies in the seats far longer than I expected. In addition, while service at times seemed random and clueless, at least it was friendly -- no one minded stepping around a niño now and then, and patio seating, where the piped-in pop music is particularly loud, is a great place for families to sit. It may not be an authentic eatery straight from the Yucatán Peninsula, but locals can certainly claim Yucatan Mexican Grill as one of their own.

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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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