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Los Alambres Grill

Out of a possible five

Tasty Mex undone by lax service

Mexican restaurants seem to open one day and close the next in Fort Wayne. So when I saw the former Coney Factory sign in a strip mall on North Anthony Boulevard had changed to Los Alambres Grill, I wasn’t in too big of a hurry to check it out.

But when fellow foodie and ethnic-restaurant tour organizer Mark Meyer of theworldsayseatme.wordpress.com told me how much he enjoyed it – going so far as to say the chicken tortilla soup may be the best soup in town – that was all the reason I needed to check it out.

Los Alambres is pretty standard issue with Formica tables and booths, padded metal chairs and a yellow, orange, green and black paint scheme that is pleasant but not at all eye-catching. There are few decorations on the walls, and it has a bit of a cold, empty feel. The food, however, is not standard issue.

The family who owns and operates the restaurant hails from Mexico City. Although the menu has a smattering of Tex-Mex favorites, it features the flavors of that area, most notably alambres, a combination of meat and cheese skewered and grilled or cooked on a cast-iron skillet.

Los Alambres offers six varieties of alambres, all of which arrive sizzling on a skillet, like fajitas. The alambre volcan featured steak, chicken, ham, chorizo and pastor (marinated pork) with the green peppers, onions and creamy queso fresca. The smoky chorizo was finely ground and spread throughout the dish much like the cheese, and both clung to every morsel. The chicken and steak were tender and moist, and the ham added a nice salty component. The pork was coated in a dark red, peppery sauce, and I enjoyed even more of it in the alambre pastor, which included chunks of pineapple that wonderfully counteracted the richness of the slow-roasted pork.

The peppers and onions in both alambres were fresh and had some snap to them. Steaming-hot corn or flour tortillas were used to form mini tacos with them, and I smeared a little sour cream and some of Los Alambres’ fantastic tomatillo salsa on mine.

The regular salsa was mediocre compared with the light green tomatillo version, which looked sort of creamy with dots of finely minced jalapeño and garlic. It was smooth and exploded with a fresh flavor that I could only describe as tasting like summer. Its creaminess came from the addition of a little avocado, and it was also hotter than the regular salsa. The chipotle salsa, more smoky than spicy, was a better option than the regular, but not nearly as impressive as the tomatillo.

The avocados used to make the tomatillo salsa also worked well in Los Alambres’ guacamole, which had a generous amount of cilantro and chopped tomato. It was creamy, arrived nice and cold in a crispy tortilla bowl and also exuded freshness.

The tortilla chips served with the salsa and guacamole were thick and kind of hard, and on both visits the first complimentary basket held room-temperature chips that were even less appetizing but followed later by freshly fried chips that were much better. The thicker chips stood up well to the loads of toppings in the nachos alambre, which was basically a version of the entrée served over chips. The nachos had plenty of chorizo throughout and seemed to have more cheese than the regular alambre. If you love nachos, this behemoth of an appetizer would make a meal and then some.

You also might want to make a meal out of the sopa Azteca that came so highly recommended. I don’t think I am ready to call it the best soup in town, but it is easily the best chicken tortilla soup. Its dark reddish brown broth had a rich depth of flavor that had to have come from hours in a pot, allowing the chicken stock, tomatoes and spices to cook down to form its rustic base. Big chunks of the chicken used to make that stock were present in every bite – not the precooked, processed meat so many places use as a shortcut. It was topped with thick, crunchy tortilla strips, a dollop of sour cream and two slices of fresh, ripe avocado.

The restaurant’s name had me assuming that an alambre, or some form of one, was the best way to go, and the mediocrity of the non-alambre entrées I tried backed that up. The arroz con pollo was OK with light and fluffy, but rather plain, Spanish rice void of any vegetables other than a few onion bits. The cheese-covered grilled chicken that topped it was good, just as it was in the alambres. The pambazo sandwich – a sub bun grilled with red sauce and stuffed with potato, chorizo, lettuce, shredded cheese and sour cream – did not live up to my expectations. The bun was coated in red sauce and got rather soggy, and the chorizo again was ground so finely it just coated and flavored the soft-boiled potatoes. The big mushy sandwich really needed the potatoes to be browned a bit or the chorizo to be in chunks to give it at least some texture.

Although the folks working at Los Alambres were polite and seemed genuinely glad to see us, there were some troubling oversights in the service department. During one visit, no flatware or napkins were brought to the table, and I had to ask more than once to get them. During the other visit, I had to ask for more when not enough were brought to accommodate my dining party.

All of the food – appetizers, soups and entrées – also arrived about the same time during both visits. My server also ignored my party for an extended time on one slow evening while he had his dinner at another table.

Restaurant: Los Alambres Grill

Address: 3434 N. Anthony Blvd.

Phone: 482-7927

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday (buffet offered)

Cuisine: Mexican

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol served: None

Credit cards accepted: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Sopa Azteca ($3.99), nachos alambre ($7.49), alambre volcan ($11.99), alambre pastor ($8.99), pambazo ($4.75), arroz con pollo ($6.75)

Rating breakdown:

Food: ** (3-star maximum);

atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum); service: 0 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130, or go to the “Dining Out” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net. DuVall’s past reviews can also be found at the Web site, and you can hear Ryan from 5 to 6 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.