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Belly Up

Out of the Frying Pan

Chain Serves Up Blazing Tex-Mex by the Skillet-full

Z'Tejas Southwestern Grill

This location is closed

By Susan Fradkin | Posted 9/12/2001

Perkiness is a quality I've never much liked, but I'm beginning to think it has its good points. I'm indebted to our perky server at Z'Tejas Southwestern Grill (10300 Little Patuxent Parkway, Suite 3030, Columbia, [410] 964-8668), a newly opened branch of the Austin-based Tex-Mex chain, located behind the Mall in Columbia. Along with the food, she kept information flowing--volunteering facts about the meal and getting answers to my questions.

For instance, not only did she deliver the complimentary corn bread, served in a cast-iron skillet, to my pal Smack and me, but she told us that it owed its moist texture and rich flavor to yogurt and creamed corn. It was delicious on its own, but I couldn't resist slathering it with the honey butter that came on the side.

The margaritas are big here, but you can salve your conscience and salvage most of your sobriety with a Little Larry ($4), a mini-version. Drinks dealt with, we started our tour of the food with an order of chili con queso ($6.95) and one of the specials, the Navajo roll ($7.50). The roll consisted of Navajo-style fry bread wrapped around big lumps of not-very-Navajo-style blue crab and jack cheese. The whole thing was then sliced and garnished with pico de gallo, shredded purple cabbage, Parmesan-crusted-and-fried leaves of spinach (trust me, it works), and chipotle cream. It wasn't spicy, but it was a winner--cheesy and satisfying.

The chili, delivered in another cast-iron skillet, was somewhere between mild and medium hot, topped with a whole poblano pepper and served with a basket of standard-issue tostada chips and a portion of salsa picante made with chipotles. Dense and smoky, the salsa delivered more of an afterburn than an explosion. (Unlike most Tex-Mex eateries, Z'Tejas doesn't offer its chips and salsa gratis; we'd rather have that heavenly corn bread, anyway.)

At Tex-Mex places, my pal Smack usually heads for the biggest combo platter she can find. Since there weren't any combo platters on the menu, she adjusted her compass and steered for the chiles relleno. Her eyebrows knitted as she read the description for the smoked-chicken relleno ($8.95), a poblano stuffed with everything except cheese.

"Apricots?" she fumed. "Raisins? Pecans?"

"Not your idea of a chile relleno?" I ventured.

Our server suggested another special, the Anaheim chiles relleno ($8.95): two poblano peppers, filled with smoked chicken and jack cheese, dredged in flour (not egg batter), and deep-fried (not pan-fried). Topped with green chile mole, the peppers were volcanically hot, so spicy Smack couldn't finish them. It was the first time in 30 years I'd seen her throw in the fork. Even the accompanying bland yellow rice and sturdy black beans failed to temper the incredible heat.

I considered the wild-mushroom enchiladas ($8.75) but settled on grilled ruby trout ($10.95), served with avocado relish, wild rice, corn custard, and mixed vegetables. The fish was a pale red, flaky but firm, and mild in flavor.

"Where do ruby trout come from?" I asked our server.

She pondered, said she'd find out, and sped off while I dug in. Almost before I could savor the corn custard--long on corn, short on custard--and the crunchy wild rice sparked with green and red pepper, she returned.

"It's farm-raised in Idaho, and it's not a fish," she said, pointing to my half-consumed . . . well, what in God's name had I been eating, then?

What she meant, it turned out, was that there's no such species as ruby trout. They're ordinary trout, raised on a farm and fed the same diet that salmon eat (on their own farms, no doubt). This colors their flesh a reddish pink.

The only side I could have done without was the dreaded vegetable medley--zucchini, onion, green beans, and carrots. Smack liked it, though. She always likes the vegetables, though. And we both enjoyed the dab of thick guacamole, which the restaurant claims to make fresh every two hours.

By meal's end, Smack and I were both groaning, our capacity filled. We decided to share a cobbler ($5.95), which happened to be peach that night. Specifically, it was an iron-skillet peach cobbler, the third skillet dish of the night. The pans get a workout here, but they really hold the heat; the cobbler arrived bubbling. We were lingering over a second round of joe before the cobbler had cooled down enough to hazard a taste: fresh peaches, lots of crumb topping, but underspiced. It needed some cinnamon or cloves to punch it up. (There was no fault to be found, though, with the slice of banana cream pie I brought home to C.C. At least, none I had the chance to find--she devoured it down to the crust, then said, sheepishly, "Oh, I didn't offer you a taste, did I?")

Smack and I were pleased with the place, though the big room, filled with chain décor, could have housed any sort of eatery. It's busy and noisy, filled with Columbians and others willing to wait for a margarita and a taste of innovative, Mexican-inflected grub. Go early.

Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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