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A ‘Grande’ Tex-Mex experience ages well

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NORFOLK — Every once in a while a restaurant comes along that just ages like fine wine.

When Hotel Grande opened more than two decades ago, it immediately attracted a broad following. To this day, with its pleasing décor combined with a neighborhood bar and staff, customers make their way to this St. Lawrence County eatery for consistently good Tex-Mex food and grog.

If there’s an ambience equivalent to comfort food, this is it. Each room is colorful with plenty of interesting chotchkies. The lighting is just right. Appropriate music plays at an appropriate sound level. It’s a grand repurposing of the classic 100-year-old hotel.

Owner Craig Alford is always there, greeting customers, busing tables, doing whatever’s necessary to keep the place humming. The busy Wednesday night we were there, so was Craig, even while he and his wife were celebrating their 31st wedding anniversary.

The staff is friendly and efficient. No wasting time reciting a long list of beers. Jiorji, our sever, turned to a page in her notepad and handed it to us. Odd, we initially thought, but it was really just fine, contributing to the casual atmosphere.

Complimentary salsa and chips always are appreciated. The pureed salsa was OK, but nothing special. A decent amount of heat, but not much other flavor coming through. The chips were good, definitely fried on site.

Appetizers offer a choice of Mexican standards like nachos, chili con queso and guacamole and chips alongside gringo favorites like chicken wings, onion petals and shrimp poppers.

We tried something totally different, their cinco dip ($8), a bowl of warm refried beans covered with Jack cheese and guacamole and showered with lettuce, tomato, onion, black olives and sour cream.

More like a salad than a dip, it was a freshly assembled mix of flavors and textures looking pretty on the plate, with strips of red and green sweet peppers added for eye appeal. Pretty, but pretty bland. A few shots of Tabasco green pepper sauce made from jalapenos took care of that problem.

Cheese crisps ($7.50) also were interesting — a crisp, pizza-like flour tortilla with a choice of toppings. We had ours with chili con carne and cheese and it was good. The chili could have used more zing, but you can’t argue with tasty Monterey Jack cheese. A yummy starter.

At this point we requested a refill on our salsa and chips ($3.25) and ordered a side of their tasty guacamole ($1.75) that we enjoyed in the cinco dip.

No trip to a Mexican restaurant is complete without a margarita. It was tempting to go for their “ultimate margarita” with Patron and Grand Marnier, but that wouldn’t be a fair test. The house margarita on the rocks with salt ($3.50) was very good. The amount of sour mix was just right and so was the amount of Tequila — strong enough to be tasty but still carry on intelligent dinner conversation.

Fish tacos ($8.25), two soft-shelled ones with rice and bean sides, were really quite good. The fish they used, tilapia, is a mild fish and generally tasteless, but these were freshly breaded, slightly spicy and fried just right, surrounded with crisp lettuce and smoky chipotle sauce.

Fish tacos are rarely found in area Mexican restaurants, but they are a staple in Mexico.

We were also excited to find two favorites offered with shrimp. Chicken and beef seem to be the norm in the north country, so when we saw shrimp on the menu, we jumped on it.

We ordered a chimichanga with spicy shrimp ($13). A chimichanga is a burrito that’s deep-fried. The impressive, large shrimp were indeed spicy, but not enough to overwhelm their natural flavor. A side of rice was also particularly good, being closer to Spanish rice with tomato, flecks of pepper and just enough heat.

The same spicy shrimp didn’t shine as well in the quesadilla ($13). They just couldn’t stand up to the chiles, tomatoes, onions, Jack cheese, sour cream, guacamole and jalapenos sandwiched between the two grilled flour tortillas.

And overall it was a little bland until we spooned some zesty red salsa on it.

Steak fajita ($13) was a generous portion of nicely seasoned strips of sirloin served on the traditional cast iron sizzler. Caramelized onions and peppers, usually served on the side so you can “make your own” with the soft tortillas supplied, were incorporated into the meat. At our server’s suggestion, we got the add-on of Jack cheese ($2) that made it gooey good.

Deep-fried ice cream ($4) wasn’t what we expected. There was no evidence of a crunchy deep-fried crust. It was just ... plain old vanilla ice cream, it seemed.

But the churro ($1.50) was excellent, long and thin, a tasty and delightfully crunchy deep-fried extruded dough thingie dusted with confectioner’s sugar and presented wrapped in deli paper.

Actually, there’s no real need to order dessert unless you’re really still hungry. Every table gets complimentary sopapillas, little round balls of fried dough that you squirt with honey from the honey bear on the table. The ones we received were made a bit earlier in the evening — not as warm and fresh as they could have been.

The food tab for four came to $83.19 before drinks. Negra Modelo beers were $3.50, top shelf mixed drinks $4.25 and house margaritas were $3.50.

All-in-all, a noteworthy dining experience. Nice place, nice people, nice menu, nice food. The atmosphere is warm, cozy and casual. The southwestern décor is fun and interesting. The wait staff is competent and knowledgeable.

Everything seemed fresh, made to order, and carefully prepared and presented. The food was a bit underseasoned, particularly lacking in classic Mexican spices like cumin and cilantro and smoky chipotle. But I’ve had the same feeling at Mexican places in South Florida where Mexican food is more prevalent.

If you’re looking for a friendly and congenial place for a night out with friends, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than Hotel Grande.

You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via email: wsiebel@wdt.net.

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Hotel Grande

9 South Main St.

Norfolk, N.Y.

384-8991

A Tex-Mex restaurant that’s been around for two decades and continues to age like fine wine.

HOURS: 4:15 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday.

4:15 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Closed Monday and Tuesday

OUR PICKS: Cheese crisps, chimichanga with spicy shrimp, steak fajita with Jack cheese, churro, house margarita

RATING: 3-˝ forks

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