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Ghost of Tamales Past

I wonder what the late tamale-vending Mr. Berryhill of the Heights and Montrose would think of his namesake stand's new digs in the epicenter of yuppie fashiondom at the Village. I suspect he might think exactly what I do: the expansion of Berryhill's Hot Tamales into the Village Arcade yields mixed results. What works is the decor of ocher-glazed walls ringed with eye-level photos of taco stands from the Baja peninsula (the roadside, sometimes-barely-standing taquerias shown are an interesting juxtaposition to the upscale surroundings). Also seductive are the imaginative bar surface, with seashells imbedded under an inch-thick layer of acrylic into a background of sea-green Formica, and the pleasant and spacious balcony outside.

As for the tamales, they mostly work, Walter Berryhill would be pleased to know. The old standbys of beef and chicken, each served with the original Berryhill's secret tamale gravy, smoky and redolent with different chili powders, were moist and flavorful on recent visits. The bean taco, on the other hand, was bland. The new all-vegetable spinach and corn tamales, served with a punchy campfire salsa, were stuffed with plenty of fresh veggie filling. The meaty chicken verde tamales, served with a pucker-inducing green sauce, were also worth going back for.

On the other hand, the soft tacos on which the latter-day Berryhill's has made its name all needed work. The famed original fish tacos -- chunks of farm-raised catfish batter-fried and tucked into a soft tortilla along with red cabbage, cilantro and a peppery remoulade sauce -- were surprisingly tasteless. Half the fish pieces were properly crispy and yielding, but half were downright soggy. The sauce had been applied carelessly, only covering part of the tortilla. But to be able to taste anything other than cabbage, I had to empty an overabundance of the vegetable from my taco. It took a diligent search to find the scarce sprigs of cilantro. When sampling the grilled fish taco, I had to check the menu to convince myself I hadn't simply imagined its being billed as spicy. Did some kitchen-assembler forget to include the heat factor on my serving? Worst of all, though, was the pork taco. The spicy sauce was a winner, but didn't make up for the flavorless and colorless strips of meat.

One wonders if Mr. Berryhill's ghost might not be playfully haunting the expanded restaurant that bears his name, if only to remind us of Berryhill's modest origins as a tamale cart that plied its trade far from any chic haven of consumerism. -- Kelley Blewster

Berryhill's Hot Tamales, 2414 University Boulevard, Suite 210, 521-2252.

Berryhill's Hot Tamales: Baja taco plate, $6.25; tamale plate $3.75.

 
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