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In the Pink

El Pueblito's food more than makes up for its color scheme

There are few good cartoons in the New Yorker anymore, but I did enjoy one that ran last month. A man and a woman are standing at the door of their apartment seeing off the last of their guests, one of whom says to the hostess: "The crab bisque, the tournedos, the bourbon souffle.... Thank you so much for trying."

It's hard to imagine anyone saying that to Eduardo and Monica Lopez, owners of El Pueblito Place. For one thing, they don't choose to cook such things as tournedos and bisque. (Though I'll bet you anything they could, if they wanted to.) The dishes of Guatemala and Mexico are more their line: succulent fish tacos, grilled chicken and truly scrumptious fried plantains.

Lopez was selling tacos at the age of 15, he tells me. And while attending college in the U.S., he worked in a slaughterhouse in Kansas. A surreal experience, it turned out. He dreamt one night that, as he prepared to slit the throat of a dead cow, the animal sprang to life suddenly and chased him all the way home.

His restaurant has touches of the surreal as well. Serapes fill the place, as do papier-mache parrots (or are they macaws? I never could tell the difference) and terra-cotta suns wearing jolly expressions -- mouths grinning broadly, eyes crinkling with amusement. There is a framed Guatemalan bank note in the amount of a hundred quetzals (who could fail to love a country whose money is named for a bird?) and a picture of several guerrillas. They look sheepish, these fighters. War is not our line of work, they seem to say; what we really want to do is tend to our fields. There's Andean music at El Pueblito Place as well, so much of it, I imagined myself back on Bolivia's altiplano, toiling up the vertiginous streets of La Paz.

Most surreal of all, El Pueblito's walls are painted a bright puce. Stay here long enough, and you start to wonder if you haven't been transported to the innermost recesses of an unusually large, pink grapefruit.

The restaurant's demographics are also curious. I visited this place twice and, both times, encountered an unusual number of pregnant women. Either these people are under the impression that Eduardo Lopez is really an obstetrician or, to the expectant mother's usual craving for pickles and ice cream, must now be added El Pueblito's delicious salsa.

There are lots of babies here, as well. Escorted, thank goodness. (Unescorted babies are the limit. I ran into a crowd of them at Rick's recently, and their behavior was appalling. Mad drunk and out of control. One of them -- he can't have been more than three months old -- was especially obnoxious, raising Cain when the waitress refused to bring him a cigar.)

But back to the salsa for a moment. I polished off a bowl of it all by myself. El Pueblito does many things very well, but the salsa here is in a class by itself. It's so good, I'd consider killing for it. More. I'd trade all my Sex Pistols records. I'd give away my Bryan Ferry autograph. After finishing off that bowl, I was glassy-eyed with pleasure. Someone said I wore the dazed look of one of those children in Village of the Damned. Too many salsas are so hot, the elements become a blur. Not El Pueblito's. This one manages to be hot and cooling simultaneously. For that, credit cilantro. The world's most popular fresh herb, it's astringent enough to mute the heat of even the most overbearing chiles. When St. Thomas Aquinas formulated his proofs for the existence of God -- order in the universe, a first cause, etc. -- he was remiss. He forgot to mention cilantro.

"Mi casa es tu casa" (my house is your house), the waiter assured me the second time I visited. Which is not to be taken literally, of course. I wonder, though, how he might have responded if I did. "Oh, it is, is it? Then for starters, get rid of those puce walls. And when you come to work tomorrow, wear a tie."

We began our repast with quesadillas del norte ($4.95). A very good choice, it turned out. The tortillas bore attractive brown blotches, while inside were strips of lean beef made even more delicious by the presence of two types of cheese -- one Mexican, the other Cheddar.

Heartened by the quesadilla del norte, we ordered the equally satisfying quesadilla del mar ($5.25). There were two cheeses in this one also, and lots and lots of very firm Gulf shrimp. Even more encouraged now, we polished off a plate of tacos marinos ($4.75) -- soft tacos filled with large pieces of snapper and garnished with a pico de gallo so energizing I made my mind up then and there that, late next year, I'd join a gym and get in shape.

It was now, I think, that we started feeling fearful. There comes a point in a meal when you begin to root for a restaurant. You want it to astonish you, to exceed all your expectations. El Pueblito had proved impressive in the early rounds. But could it go the distance? Could it defy the odds? Our apprehensions growing, we turned to our entrees: El Mariachi ($5.95), grilled chicken with grilled bell peppers and green onions; pollo Maya ($6.50), chicken marinated in herbs, grilled, and served with black beans and tortillas; the Charamusca plate ($6.25), beef marinated in hot spices and stewed in its own juices; and Caribbean snapper ($6.95), fresh bay snapper marinated in a sauce containing mango and pineapple and served with fried plantains and sour cream. The moment of truth was at hand.

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