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Restaurant Tours: hot tapas on Halsted

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If food is the sex of the 90s, dining trends indicate it will be limited to foreplay and afterglow. People are skipping entrees (a London restaurant offers "no intercourses," just appetizers and desserts) and tapas are the new cheap thrill. At Santa Fe Tapas, just down the block from tapas pioneer Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba!, that thrill is intensified by the laying on of chili peppers, the fruit that's into domination. It produces pleasure by sending pain messages to the nervous system, which then manufactures endorphins to counteract them. Hey, chiliheads, it's called sadomasochism. Look it up.

Larry Peters and Daniel Castro opened Santa Fe Tapas in mid-January where the Chameleon restaurant used to be. Peters had owned Chameleon along with John Terczak, and Castro was chef. For this new venture, Peters and Castro decided to combine the French techniques Castro had honed as chef at Gordon during the early 1980s with elements of New Southwestern cooking. Known for its innovative cuisine, Santa Fe, New Mexico, has become a culinary name to be reckoned with. The most famous of its chefs is Mark Miller, proprietor of the Coyote Cafe, who has been a prime mover in making the chili pepper fashionable. A former anthropologist who believes that the New Mexican food tradition is pre-Columbian in origin, he uses truly traditional ingredients to re-create the kinds of dishes he imagines cliff-dwelling Native Americans ate centuries ago: venison with ancho chili and prickly-pear sauce, wild mushroom tamales, and goat leg baked in sage.

Rather than following old goat recipes, Castro relies on modern ingredients like tomatillos, avocados, cilantro, fresh fish, and seafood to enliven his southwestern-style tapas. Considering the number of dishes containing chilis, his spicing is never overwhelming. Service is fast enough for you to try a couple of them at a time and see how much room you have left before ordering more.

With so many interesting choices, we could have skipped guacamole ($2.75), the missionary position of Mexican food. But unlike sex there's no such thing as bad guacamole. At Santa Fe Tapas, it's decorated with chips arranged like flower petals and is pretty good, but it differs from the usual lemony kind, getting its bite from chopped radishes and red onions. Tender, fresh, cool grilled calamari ($2.95) with a piquant corn-and-lime salsa made with pineapple juice, red and green peppers, green onions, and cilantro, is not to be missed. However the cold herb-grilled salmon ($6.50) with chipotle chili mayonnaise and a nice fruity-tasting pineapple and cucumber salsa was undercooked and overpriced.

We mostly went for the hot stuff. Our favorites were: four grilled shrimp ($5.95) with a delicious accompaniment of pecan pancake, cucumber salsa, and roasted red pepper sauce--order two; succulent baked oysters ($4.95) on the half shell with cilantro pesto; and a great torta de pollo ($5.95), minced chicken layered with whole-wheat tortillas, salsa, nino peppers, and Chihuahua cheese and served with roasted tomatillo, which, although it is of the same nightshade family as the tomato, has a fruitier taste. Duck enchiladas ($4.50) with caramelized onions and guajillo (a very hot pepper) had a strange-tasting cheddar cheese sauce; and what was billed as crispy duck ($8.75) turned out to be fatty, although the accompanying chipotle chilis, spicy fruit relish, and black beans were delicious. The duck enchilada and the grilled shrimp come with a dollop of sour cream, the core reason I eat Mexican food. Save the raisin tamale ($2.50) with guajillo sauce for Madonna. She'll try anything.

Dessert brings on some of those endorphins, but without the pain. In this case the best choices are a rich "adobe pie" made of vanilla and coffee ice creams in a chocolate cookie crust topped with Kahlua-flavored whipped cream and strawberry puree garnish, and a yummy cold apple tart smothered in melted caramel, with a sauce of creme anglaise and chopped peanuts. All desserts are $3.50. The decaf cappuccino, often a bitter disappointment, is wonderful here--so creamy and mellow I wondered if they'd made it with half-and-half the way I've always wanted to.

The restaurant has been redecorated with natural woods, pale beige tiles, and Arizona orange and persimmon walls. Dramatic niches hold massive jars (I learned to my relief that those long things inside them were bananas marinating with vanilla beans and pineapple in the restaurant's spiced rum) and bottles of tequila infused with citrus, orange, habanero peppers, and anise. Seating is equally divided between tables with regular chairs and ones with those high stools that make me feel like I'm standing up, my least favorite position for eating--or anything else.

Santa Fe Tapas, located at 1962 N. Halsted, is open for dinner from 5:30 to 10:30 Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11:30 Friday and Saturday, and 12 to 9 Sunday, when there is also a brunch menu. Valet parking is available. For more information call 404-9168.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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