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The Tex-Mex-Files

The menu at L-Ray sounds old, but chef Aaron Sanchez has got some new mojo working.

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The fourth week in January is upon us, and New York's toniest restaurant owners are cringing, well aware that they're helpless to avoid the annual forehead-buried-in-two-hands disaster due to arrive right on schedule. One might think that after all these years, folks could see the nightmare coming and plan ahead. But no. All you lovely foie-gras-savoring, white-truffle-sniffing people still fail to compute that your Rabelaisian nights are about to stop dead. It doesn't matter what the groundhog sees on February 2. The big chill is inevitable. Because this week, your American Express bills with all those Christmas charges will be stuffed into your mailbox. And high life in New York as we know it will hit the wall like a Miata crash test.

Oh, the agony won't last. Valentine's Day always manages to drag us back into the Neverland of promiscuous credit-card brandishing. But in the meantime, what you gonna do when the sun goes down and you're hungry, dressed in your Barneys-gift-certificate best, and maxed out? Where are you going to find a place hip as a Helmut Lang sheer pink tank top that doesn't let on that it's priced nearer to Liz Claiborne?

Consider L-Ray a belated gift of the magi. It's located in the former home of Texarkana, one of those yuppie playgrounds that defined the "Hey there, good times, here I am" frenzy of the early eighties, and owners Fernando Saralegui and Steven Abramowitz have wisely retained the intimate balcony-encircled dining room, though they've spit-polished the marble tile floor, repainted the wainscoting a Mississippi Delta front-porch teal blue, pebbled the glass, and turned down the lighting to late-in-the-day hazy. Consequently, while still retaining the funky grandeur of a riverboat game room, the two-tiered space now evokes enough languid hand-fanning sexiness to house an in-the-round production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Because Texarkana was one of the first boisterous outposts of New American regional cuisine, few frozen-margarita-drenched enthusiasts (they were new back then) ever complained that while the menu was full of funny new words like mesquite and jalapeño, many of the actual dishes were only slightly more bracing than the ribs Dad basted on the grill with Kraft barbecue sauce. On paper, L-Ray's familiar Tex-Mex menu almost out-déjà vu's Gus Van Sant's Psycho. But unlike that bone-dry homage, chef Aaron Sanchez's new take is a vast improvement on the original. Sanchez's mother is Zarela Martinez, the true goddess of Mexican cuisine (her restaurant, Zarela, is at 953 Second Avenue), and while Sanchez doesn't yet have Mom's fiery finesse, his food is happily marked by an energetic but disciplined lust for spices, a congenial harmony in his side dishes, and a penchant for smooth finishes.

Start with an oyster shooter bathed in a sangrita too brackish for any freshman to swig, and knock it back with a warming shot of Herradura Gold. Then you're ready to discover how comforting a duck enchilada, neatly tweaked by toasted pumpkin seeds, can be. A velvety chile relleno finds itself surrounded by a sassy purée of black beans. Mussels are submerged in a bright lime-and-jalapeño broth. Avocado loses its passivity in a lemon-and-garlic vinaigrette. Baked oysters get added body from artichokes and added brawn from spinach and tasso. Peel-and-eat shrimp will set your fingers working like a Belgian lace-maker's. Popcorn shrimp and calamari deserve the adjective; if sold at the cineplex, they'd be devoured before the end of the second trailer. Unfortunately, the San Antonio Airport salad deserves its name, and the char-grilled sausages seem to have missed their flight; they just lie there waiting to be rescued. The baby-back pork ribs, however, need never worry about abandonment.

I know it sounds cute, especially to those of you who miss Cottonwood Cafe, but frankly, chicken-fried steak only tastes right when it costs less than $10. If you want your money's worth, you're much better off with a lean pork chop basted in a deep, hearty mojo, panfried grouper in a bright, eye-widening green-chili sauce, or a superbly golden, blistered-garlic baked chicken. Few Frenchmen would recognize their beloved hanger steak enshrouded and enlivened by jalapeño mojo. All the unadorned grilled fish on the menu are perfectly adequate, but they can't match Sanchez's snapper Veracruz, blasted as it is with chilis and lime. The coconut-seafood stew is more varied and satisfying than the unexpectedly pallid gumbo, which desperately needs more fiyo on the bayou. And for those who never got beyond those shooters, at least fill your tummy with something substantial like a pressed "Cuban Ruban." It's a hoot and goes great with tequila.

Naturally, and unfortunately, Mexican desserts generally fly a few clouds below heaven. No exception here. The pecan pie, the rum pudding, and the brownie are all even sweeter than the staff, and that about out-puckers eating a handful of Cap'n Crunch dry. Luckily, your bill will be a lot easier to swallow. That's not to reserve L-Ray solely for those days when your broker has once again suckered you into yet another designer IPO. Rather, how nice to enter somewhere that really buzzes while still being able to leave without feeling electrocuted. L-Ray may not be all things to all diners, but there are times when it's everywhere you want to be.

L-Ray, 64 West 10th Street (505-7777). Dinner, daily 6 p.m. to midnight; brunch, Saturdays and Sundays 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. All major credit cards.


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