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DINING OUT

It's Mexican for Americans

Ixtapa Mexican

Restaurant & Cantina

177 Massachusetts Ave., Lexington

781-863-8653

Accessible to the disabled

All major credit cards accepted

Reservations accepted before 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, any time the rest of the week

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

The northwestern suburbs have long been in need of a quality, reasonably priced Mexican restaurant.

Sure, we have our share of cheesy Tex-Mex chains and a handful of independents catering to Mexican cuisine's most demanding and well-heeled consumers.

But that leaves few venues for diners, especially those with large parties -- think families -- to enjoy a taste of Mexicana without sending their dining budgets south of the border.

The Ixtapa Mexican Restaurant and Cantina in Lexington near the Arlington line may provide the balance we New Englanders seek.

The restaurant offers a variety of choices, including vegetarian meals and traditional Tex-Mex fare, such as a taco salad ($9) and sopa del mar ($16), which is a traditional Mexican soup stocked with shrimp, fish, scallops, octopus, mussels, and crab legs in a broth seasoned with onions, cilantro, tomatoes, avocado, and lime.

This is Jose Branbila's fourth Ixtapa restaurant. The others are in Lunenburg, North Dartmouth, and Newington, N.H. Branbila, a native of Mexico, opened a string of Café Deoro Mexican restaurants in the Spokane , Wash., area before selling them and bringing the flavors and tequilas of his motherland to New England.

Spanish is the first language of the majority of the staff, giving diners the sense of eating in a Mexican resort instead of inside a strip mall along Massachusetts Avenue. Being referred to as ``amigos" made us feel like long-awaited house guests. This enhanced the already Mexican ambience of a warm color palette, decor, and music.

The food is purposely prepared ``Mexican authentic mild," meaning the seasoning and menu fare are set comfortably at an ``American pace," said Branbila's brother, David, who owns Acapulco's in Framingham.

The brothers researched American's Mexican-food-eating habits both in the United States and in Mexican hotels popular with Americans. They learned that, while Americans relish authentic food, they prefer it with less zing. Recipes are taken from all over Mexico, not just the Ixtapa region.

Tequila, however, is a different story. Americans enjoy imbibing the fruit of the agave in fine Mexican spirit. Ixtapa's selection s include Sausa Tres, Cuervo 1800, El Patron, Cabo Wabo, and others that are served straight up or blended into a specialty margarita, such as the ultimate margarita ($8), which is a hand-shaken blend of top-shelf tequila and fresh lime juice served on the rocks.

The complimentary chips and salsa are made fresh throughout the day. Both are light, meaning you can enjoy two full bowls and still leave room for dinner. Fresh cilantro blends nicely with the sweetness in the salsa.

We began with camarones de ajo ($12), which was a sizable serving of sautéed shrimp and spicy mushrooms.

The fiesta platter ($10) is an abundant sampling of entrées. It includes nachos, mini-quesadilla, taquitos, mini-flautas, and chicken wings with fresh guacamole and cream cheese on the side.

The casa steak with garlic shrimp ($17) included a zesty strip of flame-broiled New York sirloin accentuated with sautéed onions, green peppers, mushrooms, and an order of shrimp that was a bit too spicy for this diner.

The puerco adovado ($13) was supposed to be marinated steak of pork loin grilled to perfection, but mine was a bit dry.

Spanish rice, refried beans, and tortillas were served on the side .

An apple burrito ($4.25), fresh from the oven and topped with ice cream, along with a cup of fresh-roasted coffee, completed this dining experience for us.

Ixtapa rises above standard Tex-Mex fare and is as about as close to authentic Mexican cuisine as you can get without a passport.

MAUREEN COSTELLO

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