Chips, Salsa -- and Merengue

I should begin, I suppose, by apologizing to the -- well, let's play safe and call them the Fabers. Sorry, guys. We stole your table. Truthfully, though, it wasn't our fault. Several of us turned up at Elvia's last Saturday and plunked ourselves down at the first table we saw. We were halfway through dinner when I noticed the card. Reserved, it said. The Fabers. Party of six.

Well, naturally, we wanted to move. Out of courtesy. Though, to be honest, concern for our safety played a role as well. For all we knew, all six Fabers were ex-Marines. Or had been George Foreman's sparring partners. Or then again, they might have been perfectly ordinary people having a perfectly terrible day and anxious to take it out on someone. Any way you cut it, it wasn't worth the risk.

But the waiter was adamant. "You're staying right there," he said. "Give me that card. I'll move it somewhere else."

"But -- " we said.
"But nothing," he insisted. "Finish your dinner."
Talk about dilemmas! Stay, and we were almost certainly dead meat. Go, and we risked offending the waiter -- who, I should explain, had just finished telling us that he'd spent the last eight years in Japan learning the martial arts. For all we knew, he was the world's number one ninja. "Let's stay," I said. "This way, we can expect to stay alive at least until the Fabers turn up."

"With luck, they'll be late," someone said. "Or better yet, they might not come at all." We could only hope.

I made an important discovery at Elvia's. Samuel Johnson was right: The knowledge that death is imminent does concentrate the mind wonderfully. And not just the mind, but the taste buds as well. Dinner that night seemed a series of ineffable delights. Which is remarkable when you consider that we ate with one eye on the door. Once, a group did look belligerently in our direction, but we figured they couldn't be the Fabers because there were only four of them. And another time, a man pointed at us, which caused me to choke on the nacho I was eating. Thankfully, one of our party was familiar with the Heimlich maneuver.

We'd gotten to Elvia's shortly after eight and found the place virtually empty. Saturday night, we thought. Eight fifteen. What ever is the matter? We imagined bank managers shaking their heads, accountants frowning and a tearful Elvia directing her staff to the nearest unemployment office. And then, about 9:45, people began to wander in. A mere trickle at first, then a flood, a deluge, a tidal wave.... In just 30 minutes, the place was jam-packed. We weren't feeling sorry for Elvia now. Quite the contrary. We were wishing we had her money.

Elvia's is not a place one automatically associates with food. It's a restaurant, yes. But it's other things as well: a bar, a club and a live-music venue. Yet, most of those who come here do so to dance: merengue, salsa, rumba. They arrive, take their seats, order drinks, and head for the dance floor. You'll see relatively few actually eat. Which worries me. The people in the kitchen do fairly good work. But how long before they grow disheartened and throw in the towel? Chefs make a show of being tough, but believe me: Prick them and they bleed like the rest of us.

It gets loud here, I should warn you. If you come, you'd do well to leave your Miracle Ear at home. Elvia's is equipped with THX Dolby Surround Sound -- and makes full use of that splendid technology. Once known as a cantina, Elvia's now describes itself as a Mexican pub -- whatever that means. Snooker and serapes? Pinatas and dart boards? Thankfully, you'll find none of these things. But there is a map of Ireland here. Elvia's is multicultural to a fault. The same might be said of the menu. Not only are Tex-Mex, Veracruz and Puebla well represented, there are selections as well from the Caribbean (ropa vieja) and, of all places, the Middle East (tabbouleh). There's even a New York strip, served with potatoes and a salad and, for no reason I can think of, rejoicing in the name of "steak Chilango" -- a Chilango being a person born in Mexico City.

Of the appetizers, I would recommend three in particular. The shrimp cocktail ($7.95) arrives in a sundae glass, the shrimp clinging to the rim and looking as if, any moment now, their grip will slacken and they'll fall to their deaths. I'd hate it if they did. These shrimp aren't the frozen kind. They're fresh. (The cocktail sauce, I'm sad to say, is strictly generic. Bring your own.) Also appealing is the ceviche ($5.95). There are shrimp here as well, and some delicious scallops, folded in a marinade that's a blizzard of flavors, sweet and astringent and assertive, too -- but not so much as to seem aggressive. Try as well the queso flameado ($5.50), melted white cheese with ground beef and mushrooms served in a casserole. I had the greatest trouble sampling this one. The dining companion who ordered it liked it so much, it took a threat of force to persuade him to let me share it.

Of the entrees, my favorite was huachinango al mojo de ajo almendrado ($14.25), red snapper brushed with garlic butter and sauteed with almonds. The almonds form a protective crust and look like the scales on an armadillo. Good, too, are puntas al albanil ($10.95), tender strips of beef served with chipotle chile, tomatoes and onions. It's not an elaborate dish. But this is part of its appeal. Pretentious food is so off-putting. I'd rather eat a grilled cheese sandwich.

I also enjoyed chuletas de cordero ($12.95), six miniature lamb chops expertly seasoned and nicely grilled and served with roast potatoes and a nondescript salad. I become an animal around lamb chops, seizing them in my hands and worrying them until every last morsel of meat has been stripped from the bones.

The shrimp in garlic butter ($16.50) are butterflied and pan-roasted and, I should warn you, absolutely huge. I hadn't realized that shrimp came this large. There was something prehistoric about them. Where, I wondered, had they been lurking all these years?

The only entree I didn't like was the ropa vieja. The term, meaning "old clothing," refers to the practice of recycling leftover meat. In this case, it was shredded beef, which arrived in a glutinous, overly sweet and altogether sickening sauce. Avoid it at all costs.

Elvia's, 2727 Fondren, 266-9631.

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