Northern Exposure Restaurant offers real taste of Mexico BY TRICIA CHILDRESS A while back when I lived in Cairo, Egyptians were quick to point out the American restaurants to me. All of these were fast food establishments and offered hamburgers, fries and fried chicken. These were not exactly the American foods I craved: soft shell blue crab, Maine lobster, Caesar salads, chicken salad with celery, pot roast, cranberries, pecans, corn bread and barbecue. The list of American foods I missed seemed endless. But fast food was viewed as "American cuisine" to Egyptians because all of the "American" restaurants served fast food. Mexican cuisine in this country suffers a similar simplification. Mexican restaurants here are expected to produce sombreros, the sounds of mariachi bands, a colorful interior, and lots of ooze on the dinner plate. Rick Bayless' popular PBS television show on Mexican cuisine, Mexico: One Plate at a Time (on WTVI), shows another side of Mexican cuisine. He features traditional dishes as well as Modern Mexican cuisine. Bayless' two restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, are blazing the Modern Mexican culinary trail in Chicago. In the Charlotte area, that trail is being blazed in the most unlikely place and in the most unlikely setting. Last March, The Prickly Pear, Modern Mexican Cuisine, opened in Mooresville, a town known for NASCAR. The 100-seat restaurant is located in a former church on the outskirts of Mooresville's downtown. The Prickly Pear is owned by Val Panizzut and Herieerto Chavez, who had worked together at Zapata's. Panizzut grew up in his parents' Italian restaurant in Westchester, NY. His father was an Italian immigrant who came to the US to work in a family restaurant, while his mother is of Spanish descent. Panizzut relocated to Seattle and worked in several Mexican restaurants; there, he met and married his wife, a native of Jaliso, Mexico. Her brother-in-law owned Zapata's in Charlotte and prompted their move here. "After I had helped open the Zapata in Ballantyne, I stumbled upon an ad for a restaurant for sale in Creative Loafing," explains Panizzut. "Opening my own restaurant was just something that had been in the back of my mind for some time. I called the number in the ad and things came together after that." The Prickly Pear lacks the grandeur of most new restaurants, but it has a homey appeal. The interior is painted with Southwestern earth tones. The flooring is gleaming hardwoods. Backlit canvases grace the wall, while the rear center wall bears an elevated bank of booths. The dining room is cut by a partial wall which defines the bar area. However, the primary access to the bar area is through the main dining room. Handicap accommodation requirements are significantly less in Iredell County and if you're in a wheelchair, the bar area would prove challenging. The church rafters and wooden ceiling amplify the raucous mix of live guitar and the neighborhood crowd who pack the joint on weekends. Large parties, which evidently are common, are apt to throw off the kitchen, which may mean you waiting an extending time for your entrees. "We are working on our reservation system," admits Panizzut. Both owners are typically on hand in the front of the house while Chef Raul Ortegon, a native Mexican who trained in the kitchens of the better restaurants in Acapulco, heads the kitchen. A short Margarita and specialty cocktail list offers large colorful drinks; the wine list is also short, but offers some wines by the glass as well. The menu, which changes periodically, is filled with stylish foods and offers free-flowing dish descriptions: Camarones al Carbon, jumbo shrimp grilled and served over frisee salad, and poblano-cilantro rice, with a roasted tomato chipotle sauce and avocado-tomatillo sauce. Whew. You can devour an entire bowl of tri-colored chips while reading through the litany of ingredients and sauces. But the chips are for bar drinks. A basket of hot rolls is delivered to the table with honey-chipotle butter. The fare is tasty and the ambience fosters sharing. Start with a generous bowl of guacamole, a perfect meld of succulent chunks of avocado, tomatoes and lime juice. The large portioned, crispy fried, beer-battered calamari find themselves in good company with slices of peppers, onions and a tame chipotle rouille. The hearty black bean soup is pureed, thick and vibrant with taste. The kitchen's light touch extends to the house salads, highlighted with pleasantly sweet vinaigrette and crunchy julienned jicama strips. Entrees are equally appealing. The rack of lamb with white chocolate mole is accompanied by a wondrously dense potato gratin. Not as good was the halibut, imprisoned by a maille of crushed pepitas. If these "Modern" items don't do the trick, then you can take refuge in the decent rendition of grilled fajita chicken with a hint of tangy tamarind marinade. The prices here will put a spring in your step, or if you live outside the neighborhood, your foot to the floor. The rack of baby lamb, which consisted of three chops and a salad, was only $14. Other entrees range in price from $11 to $17. Panizzut describes his restaurant as "modern Mexican cuisine -- a kind of Euro-Mexican fusion." For the 30-something (exit number, not age) folks living in the land largely devoid of ambitious restaurants, The Prickly Pear will prove to be an appreciated addition.