ASK LOCALS TO name authentic Mexican dishes and most will draw a blank. Until recently, Mexican restaurants in the city have been associated more with rowdy nights of tequila drinking and late-night partying than fine dining. Take the now-defunct Casa Mexicana in North Point, which was known not so much for its mediocre food as its live band, pitchers of margaritas and throngs of sombrero-wearing diners dancing on the tables. However, this perception might well be changing, if the opening of at least three Mexican restaurants since last December is anything to go by. The newcomers, one in Wan Chai and two in Tsim Sha Tsui, keep the party atmosphere going - all have bars, one has a dance floor and another offers live music. But their extensive menus suggest they're just as serious about their food as providing entertainment. 'All cuisines evolve over time - things have also changed for Mexican cuisine,' says Colin Smith, managing director of Don Juan Mexican Bar and Restaurant, which opened two months ago in Tsim Sha Tsui, the same neighbourhood as Que Pasa Tequila Bar & Cantina, which opened in December. 'In the past, Mexican restaurants were more like party places. They've become more sophisticated.' A mark of that sophistication shows in the menus. Don Juan, for instance, offers so-called contemporary Mexican fare, toning down the spiciness found in many traditional Mexican dishes to cater to Hong Kong diners. The third new eatery, Agave Tequila Y Comida, in Wan Chai, also opened last December. It's a branch of its namesake in Central, and has expanded the menu by nearly half, adding a host of regional specialties and new creations. 'Food quality is our cornerstone,' says food and beverage manager Luis Porras. 'We import most ingredients directly from Mexico. We're not just another party place.' The addition of the three new eateries within six months marks the growing popularity of the cuisine, he says. 'More Hong Kong people have come to realise that Mexican food has a lot to offer,' says Porras, a Mexican who's lived in Hong Kong for 13 years. 'One reason we decided to open a branch in Wan Chai was because we know there's a growing market there.' Also enjoying an expanding clientele is Caramba Mexican Cantina, a popular restaurant in SoHo, which opened in 1997. 'When we first opened, we had a lot more western customers than Chinese,' says general manager Emma Sebrof. 'The ratio was about 80 to 20 per cent. Now it's 60 to 40.' The increasing recognition of Mexican food by Hongkongers is driven by a stronger sense of adventure, she says. 'People have become more willing to experiment with different cuisines, in general. They're being educated more about global cuisines. I don't think there's so much of a growing market for Mexican food alone.' Despite the rising popularity of the food, there's still a long way to go before tortillas and guacamole enjoy the same culinary status as other foreign delicacies such as Japanese sushi. 'After all, Mexico is a strange territory for many Hong Kong people,' says Philip Fung, owner of the new Que Pasa Tequila Bar & Cantina. 'Few have been to places like Tijuana. Mexican culture is still too far away.' As well, many in Hong Kong worry that Mexican cuisine is too spicy. 'Mexican food can be spicy,' Sebrof says. 'There are more than 100 hot sauces and you can make a dish ridiculously hot by adding them. But not all Mexican is hot. Sichuan cuisine is hotter by a mile.' In a city where slimming centres and fitness centres are mushrooming, Mexican food gets a low rating from weight-watchers. 'It's not the healthiest cuisine, although it's not incredibly unhealthy,' Sebrof says with a laugh. 'It doesn't involve an awful lot of vegetables and salad and it can be high in carbohydrates. I agree with that.' Porras says it depends on how you define Mexican food. Heavy, calorie-laden dishes such as nachos and fajitas are actually Tex-Mex, which is a blend of Texan and Mexican cuisines. 'People tend to mix up Mexican with Tex-Mex,' he says. 'Some authentic Mexican dishes can be very light. Not everything is greasy.' Mexican is also often confused with Spanish cuisine - people are disappointed to find no tapas and sangria on the menu. Certainly, Mexican cooking has been influenced by historical links to Spain. Quesadillas, for example, incorporate Mexican tortillas and chilli with cheese and lettuce, which are Spanish, but Sebrof says the two cuisines are 'incredibly different' because their ingredients differ so much. Nonetheless, the confusion is a boon for restaurants such as Que Pasa, which attracts a wider clientele by serving a combination of Mexican and Spanish dishes. 'Some people are still unfamiliar with Mexican dishes, so it could be difficult to attract a huge number of people if we only serve Mexican,' says Fung. It seems Mexican cuisine still has a way to go in establishing an identity in the city. Will it ever manage it? 'I hope so,' says Fung. 'Traditionally, Hong Kong people are not the most adventurous of diners. And they're more ready to experiment with everything today.'