Hot, Hot, Hot 

Caliente serves it up spicy, but is careful not to overpower the flavor.

The menu is adventurous. Visit the islands and start with jerk-seasoned peel-and-eat shrimp ($8.95 per half pound) served with a dark rum cane-syrup dipping sauce — a nice take on the typical steamed shrimp and cocktail sauce mix. Then hit the bayou and down a few Buffalo gator bites ($6.95), because one, they hit the mark with just the right amount of heat and fried goodness, and two, you need to try gator tail before you die. (It really does taste like chicken.)

Thailand can be your next stop with steamed mussels in lemon grass and curry ($7.95), and a quick visit to Texas provides a plateful of jalapenos stuffed with red-pepper cream cheese and shrimp ($7.25). It makes for a Rolaids kind of night, but it’s well worth it.

Soups and salads offer something different, as well. The Thai Cobb salad ($8.25) takes an old favorite and dresses it up with smoked Gouda in a creamy, spicy Thai dressing. Same goes for the New Orleans clam chowder — an excellent melding of chowder and gumbo in a roux-based soup chock full of clams, andouille and chilies. Homemade dressings are ambitious and include a lime-chipotle vinaigrette and a barbecued bleu cheese.

Entrees are priced reasonably and boast generous portions with an exciting fusion of flavors and cuisines. Low country gets a nod with a nonstandard shrimp and grits ($15.95). Jumbo shrimp are served atop creamy grits in an andouille red-eye gravy with a side of braised collards. With just the right hint of spice, it’s a first-rate combination of bitter coffee, salty greens and sweet shrimp.

The “confused Germaican platter” ($9.95) is a strange mishmash of andouille sausage, bratwurst, sauerkraut, and Jamaican beans and rice with a side of spicy brown mustard. Like many dishes, the flavors appear all over the place, yet somehow manage to come together in a blessed union of taste and texture. Grilled rib-eye steak ($18.95) is served with an ancho-espresso sauce, mahi-mahi is served in a “margarita” sauce and a pasta poblano ($11.95) comes bathed in, you guessed it, a roasted poblano sauce.

Desserts are equally adventurous and are a bargain at $4.95 each. Pi¤a-colada bread pudding is doused in a tangy-sweet coconut-rum hard sauce and Bananas Foster harkens back to a classic blending of sautéed bananas, caramel and rum. It’s served warm and topped with barely melting vanilla ice cream.

Caliente also offers a wide range of catering options and doesn’t forget the little ones with a menu geared for children 12 and younger.

But the real take-away here is that Caliente is fun. It’s the kind of place where I’d expect to see Brian Setzer hanging out having a beer. The menu is gutsy yet still delivers, especially when it comes to spiciness that can overwhelm any other flavor in a dish. Such is not the case here. Instead of simply feeling the burn, you actually taste the honey, lime and the chili peppers.

Mix in some tasty tunes, a couple of friends and an attentive, knowledgeable staff and you’ve got what we ultimately want when we eat out — a good time. It’s a simple concept, but it’s the one that keeps us coming back. S

Caliente ($$)
2922 Park Ave.
Monday through Friday lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday dinner 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Closed Sunday

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