Friday, February 28, 1997
Fraternal twin fantasies
Hotel Mexico is an offbeat adventure, while Rio Bravo sinks on service

BY POLLY CAMPBELL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

There seems to be some confusion in this virtual world of ours: TV with real life, the Internet with human contact and Disney World with real travel. Then there are the fantasy theme restaurants that pretend to be celebrity hangouts or '50s burger joints.

Two theme restaurants in Kenwood -- Hotel Mexico and Rio Bravo Cantina -- are this kind of virtual restaurant. It's not hard to understand the emphasis on fantasy. After all, the theme ''one more development amid ugly suburban sprawl'' isn't very compelling.

The theme of Hotel Mexico, which is the second in a planned chain, seems to be ''adventure.'' It's played out with a wild mixing of global menu references. Note the ''Jamaican'' sauce on ''Timbuktu'' chicken wings.

The copy on the menu is plain silly: ''. . . an imaginary place where things of adventure, distant travel and time had no limitations . . .'' And the TVs with ads for the restaurant are annoying. But in spite of all this, I rather liked the place.

Refreshing greenhouse

Hotel Mexico is a huge, new building. A high glass roof seems to soar stories above the partial second floor. There's a jungle of indoor trees and plants. Video screens show nature images, while the sound system plays bird songs, jungle drums and occasionally the roar of a jet taking off. A whale tail plunges through a wall, a train goes around a track above the bar. Servers are dressed in bright purple bellboy suits. Still to come are an aquarium and a wall of water behind the whale tail and real artists working in the ''artist's studio.''

Sure, it's overdone, but on a gray winter evening, the spacious greenhouse atmosphere is welcome. It's nice to forget the world outside.

The menu has a spirit of adventure, though it's more like a packaged bus tour than, say, rafting the Amazon. The Shrimp Remoulade appetizer ($8.95), a New Orleans classic, is presented fancifully in a Mexican mortar with Indian pappadams and Asian shrimp crackers. The little fried strips of Thai chicken ($5.95) are glazed in a sweetly spicy sauce. Fu Goo ($6.95) is more mundane: ground beef with mild cheese and guacamole. Love the red corn chips that come with it (regular ones are superior, too.)

Of the Mexican entrees, I recommend shrimp fajitas ($14.95), full of sizzling shrimp and fresh flavors of onions, tomatoes and a chipotle sauce. The barbecue sauce on Katmandu Chicken ($13.95) is respectably hot, and also tastes good on the skinny crunchy sweet potato fries underneath. Chicken Milan ($13.95), with its piquant caper butter sauce, fresh sage and prosciutto, is heavy on flavor, but also heavy from breading and butter. New Asia Salmon ($15.95) also has too much butter -- a bit odd with the pickled ginger.

The best dessert is bananas creme brulee ($4.95), which combines the comfort of banana cream pie with the sophistication of creme brulee. Chocolate chip cookie dough pie ($4.95) is a cheat if you really like dough -- it's cooked.

I appreciated the service at Hotel Mexico. Unlike many chains, it was competent but not intrusive.

Decor outdoes food

A few blocks away, Rio Bravo Cantina replaced a Ground Round with a Hollywood movie-set version of a Mexican roadhouse, complete with distressed bricks and plaster and aged weathered doors. Inside, there are chandeliers, colored lights, chile lights, lite beer lights, balloons, big clocks, Mexican tiles, ropes of chiles, sailfish, cerveza signs, TVs on with no sound, Julio Iglesias on the sound system, exclamation marks all over the menu and a big automatic tortilla-making machine.

The food can't help but play second fiddle. It is possible, though, to have a good meal. The menu shows an awareness of recent interpretations of Mexican cooking, going beyond the standard beef, beans and cheese.

The fresh tortillas are thick and bready, the margaritas are big and cold. The armadillo eggs ($4.99) -- stuffed and fried jalapenos -- are fun, if overpackaged in a little Styrofoam egg crate. The chicken in the chicken fajitas ($8.99 for one, $14.99 for two) is both tender and charred. One special, Enchiladas Nuevo Mexico ($8.99), had a trio of seafood, chicken and onion-cheese enchiladas, all good.

On the other hand, the idea of floating a white chocolate cup filled with amaretto in a strawberry margarita is a bad one. The chile con queso ($2.99 or $3.99) features gummy processed cheese and the fried ice cream is too sweet and sticky.

The real problem at Rio Bravo, though, is service. On one evening, it was just annoyingly intrusive. On another, we counted at least eight different people who stopped by our table to ask how was the food, were we having a good time? Conversation was just about impossible, and my face ached from the effort to keep on a polite smile. Even my husband, the most easygoing of diners, whispered, ''Don't make eye contact! You'll just encourage them!''

It was like being waited on by robots on caffeine. It's OK to manufacture a fantasy. But it would be nice if the people were real.

Reviews are done anonymously at Enquirer expense. Ratings take into consideration quality of food, service, presentation and atmosphere, balanced against price.

- Hotel Mexico

***

Food: Good.

Service: Excellent.

Atmosphere: Good.

Value: Fair.

What: An over-the-top theme restaurant with global cuisine and decor.

Where: 7800 Montgomery Road, Sycamore Plaza, Kenwood.

When: 11 a.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.

Recommended dishes: Shrimp Remoulade, Thai Chicken, shrimp fajitas, Katmandu chicken, bananas creme brulee.

Vegetarian choices: Portobello fajitas, spinach enchilada, Pacific Rim salad.

Prices: Appetizers $5.95-$8.95; entrees $8.95-$16.95; desserts $4.95.

Paying for it: American Express, MasterCard, VISA, Discover, Diner's.

Sound level: 76 decibels on Monday and Thursday nights, presenting no problem for conversation. (Most restaurants range from 60 decibels, a dignified calm, to 90 decibels, a din).

Reservations: One-third of the restaurant is reserved, the rest is available for walk-ins.

Phone: 792-9499.


Rio Bravo Cantina

**

Food: Fair.

Service: Poor.

Atmosphere: Fair.

Value: Fair.

What: Franchised south-of-the-border cantina fantasy.

Where: 7980 Hosbrook Road, Kenwood.

When: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.

Recommended dishes: Armadillo Eggs, chicken fajitas, Burrito del Mar.

Vegetarian choices: Good vegetable quesadilla, burrito, fajitas, pizza.

Prices: Appetizers $2.99-$7.99; entrees $6.99-$12.99; desserts, $1.50- $3.59.

Paying for it: American Express, MasterCard, VISA, Discover.

Sound level: 78-82 decibels on Sunday (86 when the waiters sang ''Happy Birthday''); 78-80 on Saturday. Lots of busy background noise.

Reservations: Only for large parties during slow hours.

Phone: 984-8700.