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MOUTH BY SOUTHWEST
Paxia's kitchen sends forth a slew of savory faves

Gregg Matthews

Does it really make a difference that one popular southwest grill on Edgewater Drive has given way to another? Well, in the case of Paxia trading spaces with Moe’s as College Park’s Tex-Mex joint of choice, the answer is an undeniable yes. Granted, Moe’s served fast food and Paxia is a rather colorful, albeit sparsely accoutered, full-service restaurant, so a comparison may not be altogether fair. But the larger inequity has been the lackluster quality of Mexican fare in this city, and it’s thrilling to see Paxia leading the charge to bring some worth to a cuisine in dire need of a kick in the pantalones.

The interior has undergone an extreme makeover. Walls of salmon, tangerine and cobalt blue call for a little miscellaneous Mexicana, and an eclectic mix of music – smooth jazz, Hawaiian, lounge – baffles more than it soothes, but clearly there’s beautiful music being made in the kitchen.

The nopalitos salad ($5) strings together tangy notes in a harmonious composition of sliced cactus, pico de gallo, crumbled cheese and a liberal splash of extra-virgin olive oil. The succulent stems of the prickly pear are delightfully tart; the salad itself, refreshingly cool and crunchy. Black bean soup ($3) is laced with a ringlet of chipotle sauce, lending the pureed potage an understated bite – I only wished it were served in a larger bowl. My request for a single taco (to enjoy as an appetizer) fell on deaf ears. I was a little surprised they wouldn’t accommodate a relatively simple request, and I sincerely hope the proprietors adopt a more flexible policy moving forward. Service seemed a bit too cautious, even apprehensive – my waiter practically shook in his squeaky new shoes upon hearing my off-the-menu request.

So being denied a solitary taco, I sought solace by hitting the sauce – a silky-smooth mole poblano ($13.75), to be specific. Intricately blended flavors of chocolate and spice punctuate the intense sauce, with sesame seeds adding a toasty essence. Dressing a wonderfully moist chicken breast in a velvety coat of the mole gave it signature-dish status. Just as good is the char-grilled skirt steak, whether served as a filler for your fajitas ($13.75) or as a 10-ounce cut ($16.75). The gleaming slab was draped with a wilted scallion, a somewhat perplexing topping for a steak, but that didn’t stop me from enjoyably devouring each plush mouthful. A side of tasty yellow rice merits special mention, while refried pinto beans were too tame and bland.

Desserts were a major disappointment. First, only two desserts – flan ($3.50) and sopapillas ($3) – are offered. Second, where’s the Mexican drinking chocolate? I would’ve expected that here at the very least. The flan was, in a word, satisfactory. It was also jiggly, nicely infused and flecked with shaved coconut.

Portions here are sensible – you won’t look like a stuffed piñata after eating any of Paxia’s dishes, and if you do, the cozy lounge offers plenty of space to quietly deflate, or to enjoy an après-meal cocktail. The mood here is hushed enough for your señorita to hear the sweet nadas whispered into her ear. But the food at Paxia is good enough to make you want to shout.

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