Mix and Match 

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How does it work in a Mexican restaurant, anyway? Are there big pots, one labeled "beef," one labeled "chicken" and one labeled "beans," and then they just mix and match according to the order? Beef in a crispy corn tortilla shell, beans in a flour tortilla, or chicken on a corn tostada? I've always wondered, because so many Mexican dishes taste interchangeable to me. Maybe what I'm experiencing -- and, by extension, all of you — is merely the curse of the East Coast. Ethnic cuisine, perhaps, as it travels eastward, loses a little in translation.

On Cary Street, near VCU, the newest Mexican offering, Little Mexico, has opened — if not in the same space (now that the building's been torn down), at least on more or less the same plot of ground as the former El Rio Grande. Instead of a charming, but aging, slant-floored building, Little Mexico's got a brand-spanking-new structure to settle into. Far be it from me to question the financial advantage of erecting a new building that's probably going to fall apart in 20 years over gutting and restoring an architecturally interesting building that managed to hang in there for the last hundred. I'm sure the developers made a sound, profitable decision, and that's all that matters, right?

We shouldn't really blame Little Mexico for its landlords, though, and besides, inside it's clean and comfortable. There are an awful lot of booths, but they heighten the coziness, and although the yards of laminate don't really evoke Ye Olde Mexico, to be fair, there's no attempt to do that. Instead, it's a low-key, contemporary design with an earth-tone palette and a few Latin touches here and there. The place is full of business people and students at lunch and dinner, attracted, no doubt, by the reasonable prices and ultra-speedy service.

Warm, freshly made tortilla chips accompanied by a little carafe of salsa arrive almost instantaneously when seated. There aren't a lot of surprises on Little Mexico's extensive menu, although it's nice to see pork. I've always wondered why, when it's such a large part of Mexican cuisine, we haven't been able to find much of it on the menus of Mexican places around town. In fact, the local Mexico Restaurant chain has been one of the few to include a pork dish, and as its youngest sibling, Little Mexico does a decent job with it. The burrito tapatio comes stuffed with lightly seasoned pulled pork, cheese and refried beans (which really need to relocate themselves somewhere else on the plate where they won't spackle themselves so tenaciously to the featured player). The beef tacos are less successful and are dead ringers for the ones at Taco Bell; the chicken and beef taquitos, although crispy, are dry and dull.

The beef chimichanga is a welcome distraction, as you sink your teeth into the satisfying crunch of its exterior and meet up with its substantial beef insides. But then there's the tamale, in its puddle of mild red chili sauce, which promises so much but delivers so little in the way of savory, filling flavor. I find myself wishing I could scrape out the ground beef inside and replace it with the pulled pork of the burrito tapatio and be done with it.

Although it's not prepared tableside, the guacamole is obviously fresh and laden with hunks of ripe avocado. I wish the fresh pico de gallo that comes with the burrito tapatio were the house salsa, which, although it has a little heat, is over-pureed. Fluffy red rice, full of flavor, comes with most dishes, and there's plenty of lettuce and mostly ripe tomatoes on the side to go around.

Missing, however, is fresh cilantro, and the kind of spice in most dishes that would make all of the food a step beyond average. Like its generic new building, Little Mexico's food, although inexpensive and quick to arrive, is pretty much interchangeable with the other Mexican places in town. S

Brandon Fox is also the author of the blog "Brandon Eats" at www.brandoneats.com.

Little Mexico
1328 W. Cary St.
Monday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
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