Drab fab

!Fabulosa!, the new restaurant in the festive Centrum spot that was once Jungle Red, seems little more than an attempt to rescue its predecessor's decor from the scrap heap. As Jungle Red, this heavily windowed corner possessed a beached menu and bold, taste-be-damned decorative touches. Virtually every one of them survives.

The bright, 40-foot mural depicting island folk and sea creatures still hangs above the bar. Walls and bar table pedestals are still barnacled in bright broken tiles and painted shards of mirror. Odd sconces resembling vacuum cleaner upholstery nozzles still scatter refracted halogen beams onto the walls.

A mural depicting a blue sky dotted with little cloud puffs still dangles from the ceiling--the kind of thing you might find in the Samba Room at the Holiday Inn in Des Moines. And lest you forget what this setting is a backdrop for, a ferocious-looking lizard with a pair of frog legs dangling from its mouth clings to one wall.

Executive Chef Roger Fernandez, a NorthSouth refugee, calls his fare "Mex-Tex," or dishes that keep "the Mexican in Mexican food." But all the snazzy decor and provocative semantics don't change the fact that AFabulosa!'s menu is little more than typical enchilada, taco, and fajita fare along with a few especiales.

A few of these standards come off fairly well, primarily because they're threaded with subtle twists. AFabulosa!'s thick, gooey chicken quesadillas are better than your typical tortilla Frisbees because they're caulked shut with tasty jalapeno jack cheese. A dipper blended from cilantro-infused sour cream and ranch dressing creates a refreshing spark from otherwise pedestrian components.

And despite a tattered appearance most likely caused by overzealous de-veining, the tasty shrimp cocktail, served in a margarita glass, was perked with a rich tomato salsa cooled with cilantro, lime, and a layer of shredded lettuce.

Even the beef fajitas were better than most renditions. Juicy, flavorful strips of grilled skirt steak were mingled with supple pieces of grilled onion and pepper instead of the more common assembly of leathery scraps of burlap hidden in a tangle of sauteed mush.

Achiote-grilled chicken breast, by far the best item I tried, was tangy and moist with clean, refreshing flavors. A side of potato corn cakes was moist and savory with a crisp outer crust.

But much of the rest of the menu was a Fab flop (delicious frozen margaritas excepted). Shrimp-stuffed jalapenos were an out-of-whack pairing of fiercely hot peppers armored in a hard, bland batter crust cocooning nearly microscopic, tasteless shrimp--the culinary version of swatting a fly with a SCUD missile.

Fish tacos, remarkable in their ability to skirt even a scant hint of flavor, were flecked with specks of fish barely visible to the naked eye; beef enchiladas, stuffed with sour, off-tasting ground meat, were limp, mushy, and pasty.

AFabulosa! chicken breast featured a dry bird bosom and corn relish speckled with beans that were undercooked and hard, though a side of cilantro rice was moist and fluffy.

This food hovers a couple of notches above Jungle Red's muddled menu. So it's curious why AFabulosa!'s roughly identical ownership group would risk traumatic culinary flashbacks by retaining virtually every decorative touch from its predecessor.

The same flat black tables are set with similar brightly colored red, green, blue, and yellow napkins stuffed in glasses. Every table has the same trio of black chairs with bright red seats, with the fourth seat a high-back "host" chair covered in leopard-patterned vinyl. The same big booth benches covered in the same feline plastic are situated near the windows. This is like a bride consenting to change her name while refusing to cut loose an ex-lover. And that's a big ADragulosa!

At its most strenuously average, Mexican food--or Tex-Mex, or Mex-Tex, or drex-hex or whatever convoluted label you give it--just kind of lies there. It rudely lounges on your plate. It's limpid in your mouth. And it lies hard in your gullet until it leaves your body with the ferocity of a backfiring '55 Chevy pickup.

When this food is good--thoughtfully prepared and carefully assembled--it can be extraordinary. When it's average, it doesn't wear well at all. There's just too much going on here, too many possibilities for culinary carnage. It's front-loaded with heat, back-loaded with fat, and filled with fibrous bulk. It's like the bumble bee: An unlikely flier from the standpoint of theoretical aerodynamics, but by some miracle, it can take flight like a hawk--or at least a dirigible with a gas leak.

You won't find any zeppelins hissing on your plate at Sol's Cocina. You could call this crash-landed cuisine, but this assumes the menu ever got airborne, a possibility that is not readily apparent.

Sol's chips, a mix of tan, deep blue, and bright orange tortilla shrapnel, are thickly coated with oil. And they have a flavor something like papier-mache.

But perhaps this shouldn't be surprising. A news release announcing the birth of Sol's Cocina says this Lakewood Tex-Mex hovel mimics Sol's Taco Lounge, its Deep Ellum sibling, by offering only the healthiest, freshest homemade Mexican food (no lard--canola oil only). Apparently, serving chips with an oily sheen is fine as long as the shine is bled from heart-healthy rapeseeds.

As is so often the case, an intense focus on "healthy and fresh" menus makes for meals that have all the gusto of an ashen health-food nut waxing poetic about his colon. Fish tacos, sauteed fish with lettuce and tomato swaddled in whole wheat tortillas, tasted like soap. A side of tired, dry rice was unrelentingly bland, like most of the side dishes here. Refried beans were runny and tasted as though they were twice cooked in the soapy water used to season the fish tacos. (The consistency improved dramatically on a subsequent visit, but flavor was still AWOL.)

Gordo's platter, a Sol's specialty, sported a thin rag of mesquite-grilled tenderloin that was dry, mealy, and smothered in salt. Thin slippery slices of potato with a cheese toupee and runny, soft cheese tacos in a snooze of a ranchero sauce did their best to give the plate moral support.

Yet for all of the blathering blandness that seems to infect Sol's menu, the place serves a fresh, crisp, and beautifully mean pico de gallo with a fierce layer of heat. Siphon off some of this chutzpah onto the rest of the menu, and it just might start to get interesting.

Which isn't to say the entire menu was uninteresting. Snapper del paraiso, a slab of steamed fish with onion, bell pepper, spinach, mushrooms, and flecks of crab meat in garlic sauce sealed in a foil pouch, was flaky and cleanly flavorful. While under-seasoned, a side of grilled vegetables was pleasantly moist and resilient.

Despite the rather mediocre food served here, Sol's Cocina has a certain charisma. Its crisp industrial ambiance--with a wide bar plated with corrugated metal, black concrete floors, thickly textured white walls splashed with colorful paintings, and black ceiling with exposed beams threaded with strings of bare incandescent bulbs--has a certain electricity that helps the food go down easy. Plus the service is effusively considerate and prompt, and the bar offers a good selection of tequilas and creates decent margaritas.

I'd hang here with a cold one and munch. I mean, the slippery glow on those chips does help the salt stick better.

Fabulosa! Mexican Cafe & Tequila Bar. Cedar Springs and Oak Lawn in the Centrum, (214) 559-3510. Open for lunch Tuesday-Friday,11 a.m.-2 p.m.; open for dinner Tuesday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday & Saturday 5-11 p.m.Open for Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. $$-$$$


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