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Restaurant Tours: a hot spot for chiliheads

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Mexico produces about 500,000 tons of poblanos, serranos, mirasols, jalapenos, and dozens of other varieties of fresh chilis every year, and this year many of them seem to have ended up on my plate. Chilis are everywhere: a rock group is named after them, superstar chefs are cooking in garish pants decorated with them, and this restaurant critic is sporting a discreet pattern of Maalox stains on her twin set.

That heat is produced by the chili's glands. They manufacture a chemical called capsaicin, the potency of which actually intensifies with maturity (at least they don't peak in their teens). Experts say the best way of damping their fire is not with water, which provides only momentary relief, but with iced vodka or tequila, due to the numbing effect of the alcohol. Since there's also some evidence that salt works, I'll be spending more time in Margaritaville.

Alex Wohn, chef and part owner of the Blue Iris Cafe, is a confessed "chilihead"; he uses 39 different types of peppers in a kind of cooking he describes as "Santa Fe fare." Even though the cuisine takes its inspiration from northern Mexico and uses the most and the hottest peppers of all southwestern cooking, it's not to be confused with the more traditional enchiladas, tamales, barbecue, and chili con carne of Tex-Mex, nor the Arizona version called "Sonoran-style," which uses milder chilis. Although there are crossovers, and hotter chilis are turning up everywhere, Wohn's elaboration on Sante Fe style--like "California Mission" cooking, which relies on that state's abundance of fruits, vegetables, and seafood--is health-conscious. It uses no animal fats and relies on herbs and spices instead of cream sauces for flavor. Frying is done in canola, olive, or peanut oil.

The restaurant's excellent appetizers include crawfish cakes ($5.95) laced with green, yellow, and red sweet peppers, hotted up with cayenne and New Mexican dried peppers and served with a mild and creamy avocado tartar sauce and an assertive horseradish cocktail sauce; and crunchy, greaseless chicken tenders with garlic mayonnaise dipping sauce ($3.75), nothing like McDonald's. Both go well with the crusty half loaf of fresh, warm Italian bread on the table and the cafe's gourmet beers. My favorites are the darker, mellow ones: Pete's Wicked Ale and Dixie Blackened Voodoo Lager.

Entrees come with a choice of soup or salad. Although the mixed green salad, which I had with the cafe's signature tomato-jalapeno vinaigrette, is very good, the soups are too outstanding to pass up. Try the hearty vegetarian black bean soup with chopped onions or the vegetable soup of corn, potatoes, and tomatoes spiked with cilantro and cumin. Depending on the chef's whim, other choices can include cheddar cheese soup with chipotle peppers or cauliflower au gratin soup.

Our favorite entree was a spicy dish of grilled pork chops ($11.95) stuffed with jalapeno corn bread, accompanied by a sauce of onion, chipotle chilis, tomato, and garlic and served with a side of hoppin' John (rice and black-eyed peas). Navajo eggplant ($8.50), lightly breaded with cornmeal in a marinara sauce and served with spinach and mushrooms sauteed in olive oil and garlic, is wonderful and an excellent choice for vegetarians or those who like their food on the mild side. The only disappointment, penne pasta with cauliflower and chilis ($10.95), also sauteed in olive oil and garlic, then tossed with fresh spices, Parmesan, and grated Monterey Jack, was fiery hot but tasteless. We loved the drunken chicken ($7.95), a chicken breast marinated in tequila, cilantro, and spices, then grilled and served with mango-and-black-bean relish and fire-roasted onions sauteed in a homemade barbecue sauce. Another friend said he'd come back again just for the juicy blackened swordfish ($11.95). Cooked in a cast-iron skillet to match his stomach, it comes with jalapeno-lemon-parsley rice and golden corn bread. Portions are extremely generous.

Don't miss the opportunity to cool down with one of the cafe's luscious and soothing desserts: tart homemade key lime pie with a graham cracker crust or superb white-chocolate cheesecake. Other flavors of cheesecake are available, and on some nights you can have Kahlua chocolate cream cake, the dessert that's so popular at the Fireside Restaurant. Desserts are $2.50 each.

When I first heard about the Blue Iris Cafe, I assumed it was named after the flower. Then I saw in Chicago magazine that interior designer Holly Hunt had considered having an iris reader tell her fortune by looking into her eyes, but ran out of time after seeing a woman who read stones (we all have our priorities). I hate being out of the loop, so it was a relief to see the neon flower on the sign outside the cafe, the hand-painted irises on the tablecloths, and the iris-colored napkins, all prettier than any but Elizabeth Taylor's eyes. Then Alex Wohn told me he named the place after his wife Iris, whose eyes are brown.

The Blue Iris Cafe opened last Valentine's Day (these are romantic people). The other owners are Iris Wohn, who also serves as hostess-bartender, and Alex's brother Rich, who's also part owner of the Fireside Restaurant in Ravenswood. Although the cafe seats only 47, customers can also eat at the long, polished wood bar. Bright napery, black lacquer chairs, pale tile floors, and watercolors of southwestern landscapes make this a charming little oasis.

Battle-of-the-bulge-wise, my net weight gain after each visit was two pounds, about what I deserved for testing cheesecakes. I can't blame humidity. My hair was fine until the jalapenos curled it. And it wasn't the salt. Too much salt isn't what I worry about with a chilihead in the kitchen. Any iris reader worth her salt could see a gastroenterologist in my future.

The Blue Iris Cafe, 3216 N. Sheffield, is open for dinner from 4:30 to 11 Monday through Thursday, 4:30 to 12 Friday and Saturday, 3:30 to 10 Sunday. They take reservations every night except Friday and Saturday. For more information call 975-8383.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Steven D. Arazmus.

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