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Caracara Mexican Grill

A chicken tamale is served at Caracara Mexican

A chicken tamale is served at Caracara Mexican Grill in Farmingdale. (2011) Photo Credit: Newsday / Joan Reminick

My tamale can talk. At Caracara in Farmingdale, I listen to the fluffy bundle of shredded chicken, fresh corn and masa (cornmeal dough), all wrapped in a corn husk and sauced with a rich, nuanced mole. It tells me I'm at a serious Mexican restaurant whose chef, Richard Caruso, can cook in ways both subtle and satisfying.

Caracara is a place that's as right for weekday lunch as it is for weekend dinner. By day, the ambience is a bit dark, almost medieval. Later, lit candles in wall recesses lend an aura of glamour.

HOT TAMALE

It's showtime -- at least if you order guacamole. Fresh avocados are pitted and pounded tableside with tomatoes, cilantro, diced onion and jalapeños, to taste, served with addictive nacho chips. At lunch, a Mexican Cobb salad made with juicy grilled chicken, bacon, avocado, eggs, tomato and Maytag blue cheese works well -- despite the untoward presence of diced fruit.

Each in a lineup of soft corn tacos -- filled, respectively, with chicken, steak, shrimp and fish -- is delicious in its own right, and about as close to authentic as it gets outside a taqueria geared to native Mexicans (or true taco maniacs).

From a roster titled "tacos a la plancha" (iron skillet tacos), I'm most taken with the cochinita pibil, pork slow-cooked in a banana leaf, served with a side of soft corn tortillas. Skewered steak with chorizo, sausage and peppers features flavorful, succulent meat. I'm impressed with an entree of lovely roasted salmon plated over spinach, with a spicy-sweet fruit mole sauce made with plums, raisins, prunes, pasilla chilies.

To conclude: house-made berry tres leches cake that's moist, fruity, ideal. And a homey skillet apple pie.

NOT SO HOT TAMALE

A pitcher of sangria is oddly sour. A replacement (better, but not awesome) is cheerfully brought.

It's hard to manage my skewered steak, which rests atop way too much salsa (red and green). The iron skillet marinated chicken is undermined by dry white meat. And rice and beans are bland, humdrum.

BOTTOM LINE

A vibrant, promising spot. Let the fiesta begin.

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