South of the (Mexican) Border

San Miguel offers several seafood entrees, including two featuring tenderly treated giant prawns ($10 each), but mojarra frita ($9.45) is the only fish, a deep-fried whole tilapia. (It's known worldwide as "U.N.-fish," because wherever U.N. aides go, they introduce tilapia, and no matter how muddy or polluted the local waters, the fish thrive.) Here, a reasonably sized farm-raised fish is slashed so it will cook evenly, emerging crisp-crusted and moist. It's served with lemon slices coated with minced cilantro -- a squeeze brings the taste alive.

Pollo en mole ($7.45) features tender chicken blanketed in an unconventional mole sauce, smooth and subtle with forward notes of cinnamon and sesame seeds and just a hint of hot pepper. Hilachas ($8) is a home-cookin' kind of stew with shredded beef and vegetables, including chayote, in a "special red sauce" -- a smooth gravy of meat broth and tomato. Apparently thickened purely by reduction, not with flour or cornstarch, it's rich and comforting but not heavy. Like all regular entrees, these dishes come with yellow rice, black bean puree, a piece of decent corn on the cob, and a side dish of beets and sweet onion in yet another creamy sauce. "You don't even like beets!" my companion protested as both our forks hovered over the last of them.

"I like these," I answered, beating him to the last bite. From the a la carte menu, we enjoyed a carne adobado ($9), pork marinated for at least a day in a savory, spicy, citric rub, then fast-grilled. The explosive flavor isn't "spicy," but deeply spiced.

Don't bother with the nameless wines -- this food calls for beer or fruit drinks. There's a choice of three Guatemalan beers of near-identical flavor (Monte Carlo, Cabro, and Famosa, all tasting like Amstel Lite). A wonderful house-made horchata ($1.75), spiked with cinnamon and not too thick, is similar to iced chai. "Tropical" ($3) is a tall smoothie of banana, melons, and strawberries. You can also opt for tropical fruit milkshakes ($2). If the beverages don't satisfy your sweet tooth, an interesting dessert list ($2-3.25) mirrors those of countries farther south, with brunchlike hearty delicacies including bananas with mole, two versions of bananas and black beans, cornstarch pudding, a corn quesadilla, and a sweet corn soup.

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