The Alamo Grill

Mall of America; 854-7456

"To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet...
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess."

Shakespeare, King John, Act IV, Scene ii.

Of course, Shakespeare is right, as he always is--but gilding lilies is often irresistible. Just consider tequila. To get tequila you must take a lily--and a lily is exactly what the blue agave Tequilana Weber is--then let it grow for eight or more years in the silicate-rich, volcanic soil of the Mexican state of Jalisco. During those eight years, constantly trim back the plant's spiky leaves, so that the central bulbous core, the piña, gets bigger and bigger. When the piña gets to looking like a giant 100 pound green pinecone, uproot it, carry it off, and bake it in a giant kiln, which converts the piña starches into sugars. Extract these lily sugars, ferment them, distill them twice, and you've certainly earned all the tequila that you'll end up with.

Then again, if you're strapped for time, you could just zip by the Alamo Grill for a few shots on your way out of Bloomingdale's. They've got an impressive variety, including the top-shelf Porfidio single and triple barrels, Sauza Conmemorativo, El Tesoro de Don Felipe, Patron Silver and Gold, Chinaco, and Jose Cuervo's Reserva de la Familia. These are tequilas that are created with as much care as a single malt scotch is, from 100 percent blue agave, and some, like the Sauza Conmemorativo, Cuervo Reserva, and Patron Gold, are aged like whiskey or brandy, in charred oak casks for at least three years. The Cuervo Reserva is a real eye opener--it's smooth and mellow like a fine brandy or whiskey, but with tastes that are unlike anything else I've ever had. It's oaky, it's smoky, and then it's even sort of ghosty--evanescent where brandy is ripe, and dry and fleeting where whiskey is rich. If you've never had one of these premium tequilas you owe it to yourself to try one--they're as different from ordinary tequila as a chocolate soufflé is from an M&M. (The prices echo the M&M/souffle dichotomy--at the Alamo you'll pay $10 for a generous shot of Cuervo Reserva or Patron Gold.)

If you're feeling less epicurean and more Love Boat, the Alamo's cantaloupe-sized margaritas made with Cuervo Gold and triple sec ($6.25) are as festive and powerful as all get out. (Don't be fooled by the giant bins of limes behind the bar; you can't get a fresh lime-juice margarita here, or, as far as I can tell, anywhere in Minnesota. A handful of other restaurants--Table of Contents II, the St. Paul Grill, Campiello, the Dakota--have nice premium tequila selections. I think that if we mount a campaign asking for fresh lime-juice margaritas at these places we might just get one.) Other margaritas, like the blue one ($5.75) or the spicy one ($6.50), are tasty, and are guaranteed to make you look like the life of the party. Of all the things the Alamo does very well the drinks are premiere. Even the nonalcoholic ones are pretty great--particularly their fruity lemonade ($1.95), the light and nontannic "China Mist" ice tea ($1.75), and the big, kid-pleasing hot chocolate ($1.75).

The Alamo's front bar area is filled with giant Southwestern chairs, rough-hewn tables, and TVs. The long bar has a couple of hand-carved wooden stools shaped like horses' butts and legs, and a bartender told me all the stools used to be like that, but we Minnesotans didn't like the possibility of being the butt of jokes, so the Alamo took out most of the stools. (For me, this little anecdote has finally illuminated the Fargo brou-haha.) The Alamo is a Texas-based chain, and apparently Texans are a little more comfortable with being made fun of--or maybe it's just not an issue down there, with all the concealed weapons.

Traditional Texas barbecue is what the Alamo does best--and that's a tradition of meat marinated only with a vinegar and spice rub, then slow-cooked all day over a low fire, removed from the bone and served with a more traditional barbecue sauce. If their beef brisket got any more tender or flavorful it would be a cheese ($7.50 for a sandwich, $10.50 for a dinner plate with potato, lackluster cornbread, and beans). Their barbecued pork tenderloin ($7.25 for a sandwich) is also excellent--stringy, moist, savory. They do their steaks very well, preparing them exactly as requested. The Texas T-Bone ($14.95) arrived with a nice grill pattern, which I always think of as the sign of a chef who doesn't muck around, and tasted char-broiled--not merely singed, which is the taste that so many of today's lava-rock gas grills impart. My other favorite Alamo offering was their bread pudding with bourbon sauce. The pudding is definite and stands up to its sauce, and the sauce is sweet, creamy, and has just enough bourbon to give it character.

On the down side, there's the Alamo's nachos ($6.25). The Alamo describes them as the "best in America!" but they're actually a terrible mess--just a big, bloated, cemented mass of chili, sour cream and cheese trampling down huge defeated wet masses of tri-color chips. (Perhaps the nachos are the kitchen's cleverly coded political statement.) The signature "Boots 'N' Hats" fries (shaped like shoes and caps) were unpleasantly doughy and soft. The chili ($6.95) and the honey-mustard barbecued chicken ($10.95) were both too sugary, and there's something about the presence of (untasted) Fettuccine Alfredo ($10.50) and Caesar Salad ($5.95) on a Texan menu that's unnerving.

Since we're on the topic of things unnerving, it's time to consider the mall. Not to dwell on a cliché of mall dining, but it is disconcerting to look out of the Alamo's theatrically crumbling walls (presumably meant to evoke the tattered fort after the battle of the Alamo) and see the carpeted corridors, humming escalators, and neon signage of Bloomingdale's. Then again, what sight would be more fitting and comforting for a Minnesota meal of tequila and barbecue? A loon-dotted, pine-bordered lake? The IDS center? The 19th-century architecture of South St. Paul? Certainly it would be nice to eat barbecue and drink tequila gazing on miles and miles of stately agave fields and soaring volcanic mountains--but that's a lot to ask for, and if I've learned one thing in this life, it's that if you're already indulging in a gilded lily, you'd better not ask for a re-perfumed violet.

TABLEHOPPING

JELL-O PASTORAL: 1963 was the last year of the charmed era of Camelot. Jack and Jackie were in the White House, there was a V-8 under every hood and a Jell-O mold in every pot. Every single citizen was full of peace and joy--but then everything went to hell in a henbasket. Thankfully we can revisit that wonderful era, due to the valiant efforts of Chef Andy (http://cascade.mit.edu/cookbook/jello/), who has painstakingly preserved and posted the contents of General Foods' stunning 1963 cookbook, The Joys Of Jell-O Gelatin Dessert. Here's a sample.

Ring-Around-the-Tuna (A beautiful jewel-like entree salad for your luncheon or buffet table)

* 1 package (3 oz.) Jell-O lime
or lemon-lime gelatin

* 1/4 tsp. salt

* 1 cup boiling water

* 3/4 cup cold water

* 2 tbsp. vinegar

* 2 tsp. grated onion

* 1/2 cup diced cucumber

* 1/2 cup diced celery

(or reduce celery to 1/4 cup and substitute 1/2 chopped [seeded] tomato for the pimiento)

* 2 tbsp. chopped pimiento

* 2 tbsp. sliced stuffed olives

* 1 can (7 oz.) tuna, drained and flaked

Dissolve Jell-O and salt in boiling water. Add cold water, vinegar, and onion. Chill until very thick. Stir in remaining ingredients. Pour into individual ring molds or a one-quart ring mold. Chill until firm. Unmold on crisp salad greens. If desired, serve with additional tuna and top salads with mayonnaise. Makes 3 and 2/3 cups, or about four entree servings.

FETE YOUR MOM: Hydrangeas are in here, daffodils are blooming, and if you want to make it to rose season in one healthy psychological piece you best not forget Mother's Day this Sunday. Here are some of my personal picks for the most fabulous way to spend the day. For cosmopolitan mom, think Backstage at BRAVO!. They're doing a luxe brunch from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., including an unbelievable 12-day corned beef sandwich and chef Andrew Zimmern's fabulous Auf Lauf, a giant pancake topped with fresh fruit. Combine the outing with theater or a stroll down Nicollet Mall; call 338-0062 for reservations. For history-buff mom, how about a dinner tour on the Minnesota Zephyr? It boards in Stillwater at 11:30 a.m., cruises along the St. Croix, and serves an extravagant feast for $58.50 per person; call 430-3000. Cool mom might prefer Famous Dave's BBQ and their gigantic garbage-lid feast: ribs, chicken, brisket, and all the fixings for four adults and any number of little 'uns, for $45.99. Uptown Dave's number is 822-9900. If none of these seem right, you can always make like when you were six, and rustle up some rice crispies and a fistful of dandelions.

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