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Loud and Strong

What can you expect from downtown's restaurant-of-the-moment? Crowds. Noise. And surprisingly good food.

There are restaurants -- and it's my good fortune to have eaten in some of them -- that offer not just good food but spectacle as well: views of the Sphinx, the Bosporus, the Coliseum, Hong Kong's glorious skyline. The new Cabo downtown, sad to say, doesn't number in that elect. The views here are of a more prosaic variety: on one side, a benighted Market Square and, on the other, a parking garage minus walls. Either the architect is very daring, has a stingy client, or is an idiot.

But geography aside, I found much to like about Cabo. The woman behind the bar, for example. A goodhearted soul, she's old enough, I'm sure, to have no illusions about men. But she seems to like them anyway, addressing them as "Darlin' " and "Baby." Yes, I know: Terms like that are frowned on nowadays. But who the hell cares? No one's called me Darlin' in years. I loved it.

Cabo is a handsome place. The downstairs area resembles an expensive diner: lots of neon and barstools and fishing trophies -- they're very lifelike -- and an industrial-looking counter extending along the restaurant's length. Filling the other side of the room is the kitchen. All sleek lines and silver trim, it put me in mind of an art nouveau train. The Twentieth Century, perhaps.

Trains seem an apt metaphor when describing Cabo, because in the evenings -- and this is especially the case on weekends -- the restaurant can resemble a very busy Grand Central Station. On our first visit -- a Friday -- the place was so jam packed, it took all our strength to shoulder our way to the bar. And talk about hubbub. Cabo makes the "Anvil Chorus" sound like Brahms's "Lullaby."

Yes, humanity clamors at Cabo. More. It crushes and roars, and there are people -- namby-pambies, all of them -- who, for that reason, are not going to like it at all. But if, like me, you're happiest when the stranger to your right has an elbow in your face, and the stranger to your left has just placed his knee in the small of your back, then Cabo will be just your cup of tea.

Clamorous it may be, but there was never a moment when Cabo struck me as uncongenial. True, the noise levels, to start with, anyway, are a bit of a shock, but that wears off. And besides, in a situation where everyone is bellowing, the only sensible course of action is to bellow with the best of them. The raucous good cheer at Cabo is part people bent on enjoying themselves, and part good margaritas. Good in the sense of potent. After two of these things, I felt such a surge of happiness, I thought my heart was going to burst.

Downstairs, you order at the counter, while upstairs, where it's less of a maelstrom, table service is available. We chose to eat on the outdoor balcony. There are two: one overlooking Market Square, the other offering views of Prairie Street. We ended up on the latter, a good vantage point from which to watch the glitterati, many attired in haute couture rip-offs, as they trooped in and out of nearby Solero. (A word of warning: The tabletops at Cabo are latticed, which means that food -- in the absence of tablecloths -- is apt to slip right through them and horribly compromise your clothes.)

Cabo, I have to admit, caught us off guard. Considering that Cabo is now a scene as much as it is a restaurant, and bearing in mind that scenes rarely take food seriously, a memorable dinner was the last thing we expected. We had gone there reconciled to eating a meal that, at best, would be indifferent. But the opposite proved the case. This food is more than good. Much of it borders on terrific.

The tortilla soup ($3.95), served in a large, utilitarian cup, is the best I've ever tasted. The broth is bright and brisk and full of tortillas cut so finely, they make toothpicks look robust by comparison. There's cilantro, too, so much of it that you smell it long before you taste it. This kitchen is of the view that there is no such thing as too much cilantro, and I, for one, am in full agreement.

The ceviche ($4.95) is great, too: fresh shrimp and mahi-mahi and huge amounts of lime juice. It was wonderfully forthright and vigorous. I wish, though, that it hadn't been served in a sundae glass. For me, at least, the association with chocolate fudge sauce is much too strong.

I enjoyed the grilled fish taco, but only after the tortilla, which was unpleasantly cold and clammy, had been removed. And the fish cakes were bland -- no personality at all. If I were the chef, I'd give them a choice: Shape up or ship out.

Of the entrees we tried, I especially liked the chicken enchiladas ($6.95). Piping hot and fragrant with corn, they came with a prodigious quantity of gooey, creamy cheese -- the reason I eat enchiladas -- and an exceptional pico de gallo and black beans with so much attitude, they swaggered. Almost as good is the Mixed Grill Cabo-Bob ($8.95) -- a perfectly cooked beef and shrimp brochette. There are grilled vegetables here, too. Rather too many, I thought. It's one way to fill a skewer, of course, but I would have preferred a little more meat.

The habanero chicken breast ($8.95) was more generous. Though slightly overcooked, it tasted pleasantly smoky and benefited from being perfectly seasoned. And do try the grilled yellowfin tuna ($8.95). Good in and of itself, it comes with one of the nicest garnishes I've tasted in a while -- a captivating charred corn salsa.

Cabo, 2187 Portsmouth, 527-8226.

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