Where all Mexico tastes the same

WHEN Fernando Cortes conquered Mexico some 550 years ago, he brought glory for Spain, gold for the Church and, ultimately, chocolate, jalapeno peppers and turkeys for the stomachs of the world . . .

Mr Cortes also brought back Montezuma's Revenge for bad Mexican food. Since humankind loves pain, bad Mexican restaurants have thrived.

Hong Kong today has four Mexican restaurants - from Casa Mexicana and La Placita to the exquisite Zona Rosa in Lan Kwai Fong. But the grand-daddy of all is Mexican Mess.

Mexican Mess is, legally, not really a restaurant. It's a private club. But you pay $20, sign your name and after an initiation period of 30 seconds, you become a member.

This entitles you - or the official 5,000 paid-up members - to club activities, including history forums, magical pyramid studies and birthday nights.

An L-shaped room with a bar next to the front door, the Mess has two adjoining rooms with dusty windows and dozens of plants. The room has an aura of New Age as well, since Bob Ingles, the founder-manager, has stocked the restaurant with pyramids, crystals and other appurtenances of the underworld.

The Filipino waitresses are easygoing and unaffected. Most of the visitors are quite curious. Navy sailors off American aircraft carriers look for Tex-Mex from home. Old Hong Kong hands who care not for new-fangled Lan Kwai Fong glitter enjoy the privacy. Others just want some place comfortable and quiet; the food is secondary.

Drinkers are well provided for. Any of the three Mexican beers - Carta Blanca, Bohemia or Tecate - are, at $32, per bottle a good deal. The Mess offers candy-shop varieties of margaritas, flavoured with strawberry, raspberry or blueberry.

The menu is a paradox. Nowhere can you have such a massive choice. And nowhere can you come back thinking you've had a single dish. This isn't a problem in metaphysics. It's a problem in ingredients.

Six closely-printed pages list about 100 specials, sandwiches, soups and side orders. Once you order, the plates appear almost immediately.

In Mexico, tortillas are made to order on little grills; then the fillings - meat, cheese, beans - assembled according to choice. Mexican Mess is proud of their tortillas and tacos, made fresh every morning. Any of the fillings can be simply spooned into the breads.

Thus, my guest - a local who had never eaten Mexican before - began with great expectations, fell in love with the first bite, and found his love affair quickly falling. The first taste was the fine salsa, made with chopped chillies and tomatoes. That was followed by a profusion of dishes which dripped into each other.

The enchilada suiza was a soft tortilla wrapped around chicken and covered with sour cream. The pollo asado, another chicken dish, was like a tough bird on a stick, satay-style.

One complicated dish was the vegetarian enchiladas con frijoles, with the refried beans, onions and - yes, cheese - baked in a tomato sauce. It tasted like the rest.

In fact, there was nothing distinctive at all: cheese dripped into beans, which dribbled into beef, which got confused with chicken, which wobbled into tomatoes.

Our bill fell short of $1,000 for six dishes, tequilas and two beers.

Compared to the burgeoning competition, Mexican Mess lacks the zing, the aroma of fresh corn lightly grilled, and the excitement where the mouth should explode just before the lips form an almighty 'Viva!'.

Mexican Mess, Block C, C/4, 11th floor, Hankow Centre, 1C Middle Road (opposite YMCA), Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. Tel 3674535. Hours: Noon-midnight daily