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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 39.0° F  Fair
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Fun with tacos
A Wisconsin Dells institution expands southward

Mexicali Rose
802 Atlas Ave, 222-2700
11 am-midnight daily. Parking. Smoking on patio.
Wheelchair accessible. Lunch under $10, dinners $10-$15.
Major creidt cards, checks.

There she is, glowing in the distance. She's...she's...shocking pink. Maybe raspberry.
"More bubblegum," says my companion. "Fleers."

Whatever, she's a bright and cheerful-looking restaurant. She's Mexicali Rose, and she's out to show us a good time.

This used to be CJ's East, nestled into an on-ramp at the intersection of Highway 51 and Cottage Grove Road (although the entrance is on Atlas Avenue). Now, instead of CJ's steaks, walleye and liver and onions, there are burritos, fajitas and enchiladas. Oh, yes ' and margaritas, daiquiris, and piÃa coladas.

Mexicali Rose has been a staple of the Wisconsin Dells restaurant scene since 1979, so they know how to handle people out looking for a good time. This is their first attempt at spreading the fun beyond the banks of the Wisconsin River.

There is a large outdoor seating area, and I was hoping we might dine there on a recent weekday evening. But, alas, it was raining, so we went inside. (Mexicali Rose, stop crying. I'll come back to you some sunny day.) The bar was alive with happy-hour patrons, apparently getting happier by the hour, and the booths and tables were filling up fast. We got a booth right next to the bar, not exactly the ideal spot for quiet conversation, but it sure put us smack dab in the middle of the fun.

The restaurant space has been redecorated, largely by carrying the raspberry color theme inside, and mixing it with earthen and sky colors. There are vestiges of the old CJ's, including the huge iron chandeliers, heavy wood beam ceilings and gas fireplaces, and the lighting is just as bad as it was in the old CJ's ' dim, without being romantic.

First came the obligatory corn chips and salsa, with the margarita. The drink was fine, not too sweet, and better when made with Cuervo Gold tequila. The chips, ordinary, were at least fresh and crisp, but the salsa was without either spice or heat ' no hint of tomatillos, jalapeÃos, garlic or cilantro that I could detect. Later, I found that they will bring out a spirited salsa verde, but you have to know to ask for it. No point in offending delicate Midwestern palates.

The dinner menu is extensive, containing all the Americanized versions of peasant foods that we have been led to believe are Mexican: tacos, tamales, flautas ' all fun ways to twist a tortilla. There also are chicken and fish dishes, and a kids' menu with corn dogs and PB&J sandwiches. For those who don't even like Americanized Mexican food, there are burgers, a strip steak with fried onions and Texas barbecue.

One of my companions, eager to try several items, ordered a combination plate, with a beef taco, a beef burrito and a cheese enchilada, as well as the mandatory refried beans and rice, smothered in melted cheese. Of these items, the beef burrito is by far the best, with pieces of sirloin tip, nicely spiced, in a flour tortilla. The beef taco is filled with hamburger, and the cheese enchilada, combined with all the melted cheese layered on top of this plate, is redundancy at its most cholesterol-laden.

Another companion went for something more exotic: guava-glazed pork ribs, dry-rubbed and simmered in a spiced marinade, finished on the grill with guava barbecue sauce. They were served with red beans and, for some reason, coleslaw and corn on the cob. The ribs were meaty and flavorful, the beans and coleslaw ordinary, and the corn inedible, almost like overcooked field corn. One bite and done. A hurtful blow, this, considering we are in the peak of the sweet corn season in Wisconsin.

In a search for Mexican heat, I ordered Camarones Diablo, to see if Mexicali Rose could tempt me with the devil's own fire. What was described as a "very spicy" salsa turned out to be only moderately spicy. The grilled jumbo shrimp apparently spent too much time lazing on the grill, and the rice mixed with crumbled chorizo did little to help this dish.

Madison has its share of good Mexican restaurants, a few of them excellent and as authentic as you are likely to find this far north. Mexicali Rose is not one of these restaurants. What Mexicali Rose can offer is lots of fun, a good happy hour, friendly service, good-enough food if you choose wisely, and moderate prices. And maybe that's enough.

I'll be back again some sunny day, to try the pollo con mole poblano. Rose, wait for me.

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