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GRILL CRAZY

Heaven help us if someone does a study that shows eating dog food lowers cholesterol and helps us live healthier, longer lives. Within weeks Denver would be overrun by "poocherias," and restaurants could get a leg up on the competition by offering the freshest, just-kibbled ingredients.

All it took was for someone to get wise to the fact that lard-fried, cheese-smothered, sour-cream-loaded Mexican food is laden with fat--whoa, now there's a discovery--and the scramble was on to produce the same food without all of the bad stuff. Maybe you've tripped over ten or twelve of these "fresh Mexican grills" on your block. Most come from California, some from Colorado, and they have more in common than they'd like you to know. First, they're all brightly colored. Second, they're semi-fast-foodish. And third, they offer health-conscious dishes by using cholesterol-free oils with their grilled meals and stocking up on low-fat dairy products. But the thing is, while it may be an evil, heart-clogging health hazard, fat is your flavor friend. It's that part of food that makes your eyes roll into the back of your head as you moan words not normally used while you're still wearing clothes. So the challenge all these "fresh Mexican grill" upstarts face is replacing fat with something you can care about...almost as much.

The most successful at injecting lip-smacking, lipid-alternative goodness into the formula is Zuma (550 Grant St.), which opened in September. The owners, native Coloradan Anthony Miller and Le Cirque veteran Robert Hauser, have meshed the Mediterranean and Mexico into a hip, happy-priced roster of gourmet burritos and tacos served in a mellow atmosphere. All the grills I've visited tout freshness, but Zuma really made good on its promise.

Onions don't lie, and in salsas there's no mistaking that just-cut bite as opposed to the melded, mild onion permeation that comes from sitting in the refrigerator overnight. Zuma's pico de gallo, called "salsa fresca," easily passed this taste test. I first encountered it inside the chicken burrito ($4.50), a warm flour tortilla filled with al dente black beans, cilantro-flecked rice and big pieces of tangy, grilled chicken. The burrito was the size of a Chihuahua--as are all of Zuma's burritos, it turns out--and came covered with Monterey Jack cheese and sour cream (nonfat was an option). Many of the same ingredients reappeared in the poblano pesto burrito ($4.75), a specialty version that boasted a potent pesto of roasted poblanos and cilantro. But even the vegetable burrito ($4.50) packed lots of flavor in with the grilled saltiness of zucchini, scallions, eggplant and red bell peppers.

So far, Zuma has avoided the fish-taco trap and instead stuffs its crunchy corn tortillas with meat or beans. I tried the steak ($4.50 for three) with the roasted serrano salsa (all of the dishes come with a choice of four salsas), which had a nice spicy smokiness balanced by cooling diced roma tomatoes. I had been torn between the steak and the carnitas (chunks of braised pork), and when the guy at the counter noticed my indecision, he ran to get a sample of each. That kind of attention and service may be what separates the real Mexican grills--modeled after the ultra-friendly taquerías in Mexico City--from the ones that just want to eat up your money.

It was hard to tell just what the employees at Jalapeno's Mexican Grill (5701 E. Leetsdale Dr. and 9555 E. Arapahoe Rd.) were up to. When I arrived ten minutes after they'd opened the Leetsdale outlet one Saturday morning and asked if I could get something to eat, they all stood there staring at me as if I'd suggested they turn the place into a poocheria. Finally, one guy told me it would be a few minutes, and they started wandering around in slow motion. A half-hour later I still had no food, but a manager-looking guy arrived, and suddenly--service! Within minutes I was holding a fish taco ($1.99), my favorite in town (and winner of the Best of Denver award this year). The key to its fantastic flavor: fat, of course. Not drippy-thick fat, but thin-greasy-sheen fat that slicked up the battered pieces of deep-fried fish wrapped in white-corn tortillas. The mayo-based sauce had a vinegary bite, and the pico de gallo was gloriously heavy on the onion, which added extra texture beyond the shredded red cabbage also tucked into the shell. The fish taco is stunning, and it's the only reason I've found to go to Jalapeno's. Still, there soon will be many more of these places popping up, since the ownership group, a bunch originally from San Diego that now calls Colorado home, plans six more in the next year or so.

They'd better work on the quality control at the two they've got first: Inconsistency seems to be the only constant at Jalapeno's. For instance, at one outlet the potato burrito ($2.99) was a magnificent Mexican potato au gratin, filled with crisp-edged fried potato slices tossed with pico de gallo and coated with cheddar and a smoky white sauce; at the other Jalapeno's, the burrito was oozing with smelly grease and missing the pico de gallo. I changed my mind about trying the California burrito ($4.49) when I saw an employee at the Leetsdale store scratch his head and then grab a handful of rice out of a bin. At the other place, though, this football-sized dish had just the right mix of crunchy and soft ingredients--guacamole, cilantro-lime rice, black beans and chipotle cream sauce--and a huge, super-fresh tortilla. And at both Jalapeno's, the carne asada burrito ($4.99) was so light on the guacamole it wasn't fair to call avocado an ingredient.

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