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Dining Out: Say ‘arriba’ for Astoria’s bueno Tierras Mexican

I honed my appreciation for Mexican food in Austin, Texas. For all practical purposes, there are two types of food worth eating in Austin. One of them is barbecue. The other one is Mexican. I’ve yet to find a local barbecue restaurant that is worthy of comparison to Austin ‘cue, but things are looking up in the Mexican department. I’ve finally found a restaurant in Astoria that serves Mexican fare that could hold its own among my Austin favorites.

Tierras Mexicanas is an inviting little place, with brightly glazed walls and ceiling, and a wooden bar at one end. The ambiance is stylish and pleasant. Mellow, romantic Spanish pop music wafts from the stereo. The margaritas, offered with a wide choice of tequilas, are excellent. But the real story here is the food. It’s terrific!

First, a word about Mexican food. The cuisines (and I do mean plural) of Mexico are sophisticated and varied. They can be divided into two categories: northern and everywhere else.

The one that most Americans are familiar with is antojitos mexicanos, literally “Mexican-style whims.” These are the corn- and tortilla-based specialties that include dishes such as enchiladas, tacos, tamales, quesadillas, chalupas and tostadas that evolved directly from the original Indian cooking. In Mexico today these antojitos mexicanos serve as inexpensive but delicious staples for those in the lower economic class, and are popular with the more affluent as informal snacks or light meals, much as we would eat hamburgers and hotdogs. It is based primarily on the more simple cooking of the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua and Nuevo Leon, the origins of most of the early immigrants.

The second category, “Interior” Mexican, refers to the complex, and diverse cuisines which arrived stateside more recently from the interior regions of Mexico like Puebla, Veracruz, or Mexico City.

Tierras Mexicanas does a creditable job with the former category. Lunch on some tasty tacos al pastor, or if you’re a vegetarian, stick with the vegeteriano tacos or burritos. But their real forte is the interesting and varied dishes of Interior Mexican.

Upon arrival at Tierras, the obligatory serving of salsa (both red and green) and chips is placed on the table. You might be encouraged to order some guacamole. Don’t do it. A little strategy is called for here. Their guacamole is wonderful — chunky, garlicky, with lots of discernable bits of tomato and red onion, but resist. So many of their entrees are served garnished with a generous dollop of guac, that you might as well hold out and order a more intriguing appetizer. There are so many to choose from.

Quesadillas rellenas are a new take on a perennial favorite. They’re corn meal quesadillas filled with wild mushrooms, and rajas (fried slices of skinned poblano chiles) and topped with tomatillo salsa, crema fresca and cotija cheese (the Parmesan of Mexico, a grating cheese). A true delight, and perfect for a vegetarian, if there’s one in your party. Papa rellena is a crispy potato basket filled with assorted seafood with melted cheese finished with a chile ancho pepper sauce. Its not that spicy, but very delicious. Tacos de camaron consists of two soft corn torillas served with rock shrimps, melted manchego cheese, and topped with onions and cilantro. That was the spiciest of the three, and my fave.

The entrees live up to the promise of the appetizers in their creativity and deliciousness. Salmon Azteca, pan-roasted salmon served with chile chipotle noodles tossed with shrimp mussels and vegetables, was flavorful and intriguing. The pasta was of the angel hair variety, but with a kick. Tampiquena, grilled marinated skirt steak served with guajillo mashed potatoes, a mole cheese enchilada, rajas and guacamole is another winner if you’re feeling like beef. Pechuga Tierras Mexicans, a chicken breast marinated in chile pasilla served with garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed peppers and onions makes great Mexican comfort food. All of the entrees are generously portioned, and come with rice and excellent beans.

Although the desserts on the menu all sounded tempting, there was only one available during our visit. We completed our meal with a luscious serving of strawberries drenched in caramel-flavored crema fresca. We hope to return sometime to sample the crepes.

The Bottom Line

Gourmet “Interior” Mexican food at modest prices in pleasant surroundings. Extend your appreciation of Mexican cuisine without overextending your wallet.

Tierras Mexicanas

31-01 36th Ave., Astoria

718-777-6603

Cuisine: Mexican

Setting: Simple but stylish

Service: Leisurely paced, friendly

Hours: Open seven days, L&D

Reservations: Recommended on weekends

Parking: Street

Dress: Casual

Children: Welcome

Takeout: Yes

Private Parties: yes

Credit cards: Yes

Noise level: Acceptable

Handicap accessible: Yes

Recommended Dishes:

Pappa Rellena (fried potato basket filled with seafood)…$7.99

Tacos De Camaron (shrimp tacos)…$5.99

Ceviche Mexicano (shrimp ceviche)…$6.99

Quesadillas Rellenas (cornmeal quesadillas filled with wild mushrooms and peppers and topped with tomatillo sauce and cheese)…$5.99

Guacamole…$6.99 (as appetizer) $2/$4 (sm/med side)

Salmon Azteca…$13.95

Tampiquena (marinated skirt steak with a mole cheese enchilada)…$13.99

Puerco Tolteca (pork chop served with apple, chorizo, mashed potatoes and finished with habanero, orange reduction sauce)…$12.95

Pechuga Tierras Mexicanas (chicken breast marinated in chile pasilla served with garlic mashed potatoes and veg.)…$10.99

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