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It’s a sad fact that for most Americans Mexican cuisine is defined by Taco Bell. While I’ve nothing against Taco Bell (great drunk food late at night), there are more authentic options available. While South Florida may not have as many immigrants of Mexican descent as Texas, Arizona, Los Angeles or Chicago, there are enough to support restaurants at a variety of price points. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular local spots with more than one location. In a later column we’ll look at stand-alone spots.

Cantina Laredo
501 Silks Run, Hallandale

Owned by the same chain that operates III Forks, Cantina Laredo does a very good job serving up food that is not only well prepared, but reasonably priced (compared to its parent company’s other restaurants). Cantina Laredo specializes in the cuisine of Mexico City (which oddly, is more than 700 miles from Laredo, Mexico) with a modern twist. Friendly, efficient service and good food at reasonable prices more than make up for the corporate-looking décor.

Start with the guacamole, made fresh tableside. The $10 portion is easily enough for four. Ceviche, a combination of shrimp and scallops on our visit is a steal at $9.49. For a light dinner or lunch, the Ensalada de Camaron y Fresa features micro greens topped with grilled shrimp, strawberries, jicama, pineapple, avocado, roasted walnuts and queso fresco. Entrée winners include two versions of chile relleno, one stuffed with shrimp, Monterey Jack, mushrooms, corn, spinach and zucchini, then topped with avocado and one with the pepper encased in a tender grilled steak. Avocado and artichoke enchiladas topped with tomatillo sauce on a bed of spinach are just one of many options for vegetarians. Don’t skip dessert. Either the Mexican apple pie, served on a sizzling platter, or the mango tres leches cake are good options.

The Whole Enchilada
745 N Federal, Ft Lauderdale, 954-306-6218
4115 N Federal, Oakland Park, 954-561-4040
8000 W. Broward, Plantation, 954-314-7095

This mini-chain is what Chipotle should be. Everything is prepared fresh, not just assembled from steam table pans, and there’s a salsa bar with plenty of options from mild to kill your ass the next day. A favorite of ours is “Nacho Mama.” The classic dish is only six and a half bucks and makes for a meal or an app for up to four. Top it with grilled protein for $1.79 more. Of the salad options, check out the Mexican Caesar where seven bucks gets you the classic dish with Cotija cheese and a choice of chicken, steak, ground beef, pork or tofu (fresh mahi or shrimp is $1.50 more). The best burrito by far is “One of Those” featuring jack and cheddar cheeses, salsa and guacamole with a choice of charbroiled chicken, steak, ground beef, pork or seared tofu for seven bucks. For a lighter option, check out the “Ensenada.” Although it’s a buck more, it’s stuffed with fresh mahi, jack and cheddar cheese, lettuce, avocado, tomato and a yummy cilantro sauce. Most dishes come with a side of warm chips. Prices are low; a full meal is less than $10.

Zona Fresca
1635 N. Federal, Fort Lauderdale, 954-566-1777

Co-founder Oscar de Armas moved to SoFlo from SoCal and had trouble finding decent Mexican food, so he started his own restaurant. The chain has locations in eight Florida cities, as well as New Jersey and New York, yet manages to feel like a Mom and Pop operation. As with The Whole Enchilada, you order your meal at a counter. Here, instead of delivering it to you, they call your number. Best bets include fish tacos (beer battered fish with shredded cabbage and a tangy dressing), the “Machaca” taco (shredded beef and queso fresco in a crunchy shell) or the “Cali-Wrap” (a burrito stuffed with a choice of chicken or steak, jack and cheddar cheeses, avocado, tomato, onion, cilantro and lettuce, tossed in lemony dressing). There’s an extensive salsa bar as well. A filling meal will cost $10-$15.

La Bamba Mexican & Spanish Restaurant
4245 N Federal Hwy, Oakland Park, 954-568-5662

The Oakland Park outlet of this family owned mini-chain (there are also locations in Plantation, Margate, North Palm and Delray) is the gayest place in town on Monday nights, with crowds to rival most of the bars and clubs in town. Why Mondays? House margaritas are only $4.50 (if you order a meal). What amazes me is that anyone would return to this place after experiencing the rude attitude from the hosts, lazy service and mediocre food I experienced on my three visits. The first visit was when I first moved to South Florida. The crab nachos were adequate (although a bit skimpy on the crab), but only copious amounts of the margaritas made the rude service and hour and a half wait tolerable. I thought I must have caught them on an off night.

Next time the same rudeness and a slightly shorter wait (because we arrived at 5:45) couldn’t compensate for the tuna melt tortilla. I specifically asked if the tuna was fresh and was assured it was. Not only wasn’t it fresh, it was canned (and made into a tuna salad). On their last chance visit, I ordered Palomilla, and got a tough sirloin steak topped with chopped onion and parsley. The wait was over an hour, but this time at least our server was friendly, if uninformed and inefficient.

After three strikes, I won’t be going back. For the life of me, I can’t understand why the gay men in this town (and the crowd is overwhelmingly gay and male on Mondays) put up with this. There must be someplace else serving cheap Margaritas.