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Thursday, August 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 64.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Take 'em down to Tex's Cadillac Ranch
A revamped Tex Tubb's west revs its engine
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Even before the west-side Tex Tubb's Taco Palace changed its name, recently, to the more upscale Tex's Cadillac Ranch, I was a regular. Three tacos for $9.99 is a bargain, and these aren't slapdash tacos. The white corn tortillas come packed with red cabbage, guacamole, black bean puree, chipotle mayonnaise, pickles and onions, which make for a nice blend of crunchy pickled texture and seamless seasoning even before you add your choice of main ingredients. And if you add the achiote tilapia, a sweet fat chunk of fish, or the jumbo marinated shrimp, you get a lot of seafood for that very low price.

So it was a relief, when we stopped by to sample the recently expanded and revised menu, to see that those signature tacos still had pride of place on the list of dishes. In fact, at first glance, not a lot had changed. The dining room was still a playful riot of color, from the purple and turquoise banquettes to walls splashed with a crayon-box worth of hues. The service, famously friendly, was as down-home cheerful as ever, and the playlist still featured Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash singing their sad dirges, like a country version of a Gregorian chant.

What had changed was the kitchen's sense of ambition, which now roams all over Texas, from the hill country to the Gulf Coast to West Texas, finally dipping south to Mexico. The recent fetish for culinary authenticity, though, is a moot point here. Purists will probably have problems, starting with those fish tacos, but purists can forget that cooking doesn't have to follow any rules, as long as things taste good. And the mix of tweaked traditions on the Cadillac menu is a reminder that sometimes the best food is as playful as the restaurant's blinding color scheme.

That doesn't mean everything on the new menu works. It could benefit from some judicious editing and some tweaks of its own. I'd start the editing with the Deadwood Cobb Salad. Cobb salad is one of those dishes that doesn't need updating, and the Cadillac rendition is no improvement on the original. The muddled, messy heap of shredded chicken and cheese, corn relish and sliced avocado, plopped on greens, lacks finesse. Worse is the new pork tenderloin, which featured (at least on the evening we picked at it) overcooked, leathery strips of meat that tasted merely smoky. And in a city crowded with hamburger joints, the Cadillac burger doesn't stand up to the competition. The black 'n' blue burger does gain some nice flavor from its blue cheese and onion rings, but the boulder of meat itself could be a lot more tender.

But there is still plenty of good, affordable food on the new menu, and it's easy to construct a satisfying, even exuberant meal here. I'd start, and finish, with those fish tacos (the blackened tilapia and fried catfish are also great), but then I would. Most people will probably start with the knockout Rio Bravo nacho platter. The mammoth avalanche of crispy corn chips comes topped with black beans, jack cheese, sliced jalapeños, pico de gallo, queso sauce and sour cream. If you add pulled chicken or shredded pork for an extra $3, you won't need to order entrees. That, though, would mean missing out on some of the new menu's real star turns, including a blackened salmon BLT roused by a juicy Cajun-spiced salmon fillet. A shrimp po'boy, though it deserves a better frame than the doughy baguette, comes thick with cornmeal-crusted shrimp.

Maybe the new menu's most inspired addition is a Texas paella. The heap of sautéed shrimp, pulled chicken, andouille sausage and grilled peppers piled on Cajun rice actually tastes a lot more like a gumbo than a paella, but who cares? It's an exhilarating mound of food and a bargain, like those tacos, and like pretty much every entrée here.

While desserts, surprisingly, aren't a main attraction (the Key lime pie is merely standard-issue), an epic slab of brownie topped with ice cream makes for a lavish finish, mostly because the brownie is fresh and very fudgy. It's a reminder that the Cadillac Ranch is bent on serving big flavors, and it's enough of an inducement to return for the chicken-fried steak and the Louisiana catfish.

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