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Del Fuego restaurant in St. James serves a

Del Fuego restaurant in St. James serves a half-rack of dry-rubbed pork ribs prepared with lager barbecue sauce, red cabbage slaw and spiced pumpkin seeds. (Jan. 30, 2012) Photo Credit: Doug Young

Most of the time, Del Fuego is exactly the Tex-Mex restaurant that it should be: an attractively rustic cantina where culinary traditions are both respected and slyly tweaked. Witness the bigeye tuna seviche, chunks of raw fish "cooked" by its citrusy marinade, tossed with charred pineapple, pickled jalapeño and ginger chili oil. It's Latin, it's Asian, it's fruity, it's fiery, it works.

At the same time, I'm puzzled by the desultory "Fuego" salad with grilled chicken -- wilted field greens scantily strewn with mango, avocado and jicama plus overcooked hunks of poultry.

That Del Fuego is capable of better becomes clear with the first sip of rousing crimson chicken tortilla soup. Guacamole with fresh pico de gallo and salsa is soothing yet piquant. And a smoky depth infuses the dry-rubbed ribs topped with pumpkin seeds, plated with a red cabbage slaw. Food like this is why I've come.

I could be lured back by the thick, juicy Fuego burger topped with avocado, chipotle mayonnaise, bacon and melted Cheddar and Monterey Jack. A barbecue beef wrap with brisket, roasted corn, caramelized onion, greens and honey chipotle dressing comes together harmoniously. So, too, do surf-and-turf fajitas featuring shrimp and filet mignon.

But why is an entree of juicy, well-spiced adobo filet mignon served atop slippery dressed salad greens? Cutting the meat becomes quite awkward.

A trio of tacos is best ordered with soft corn tortillas instead of pasty flour ones. Tops among fillings is shredded beef brisket with poblano pepper. We order crabcakes, but they never get delivered. Service needs sharpening, for sure.

Not bad, a finale of flaky-crusted apple empanada with salted caramel ice cream. Better to order the chili-spiked Mexican chocolate ice cream solo instead of with heavy, deep-fried churros.

Other lures besides food: an interesting list of tequilas and beers, a busy bar and six TV screens for catching the game of choice.

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