THE phenomenal success of the film Like Water for Chocolate, which became the undisputed cult foreign movie of last year and is still running at the Cine-Art House after more than six months, must have left a trail of frustration around town. The curiously titled movie from Mexico, based on a novel of the same name by Laura Esquival, weaves a fabric of sensuous Latin surrealism with those two most important of life's topics: sex and food. Each of the 12 chapters starts with a recipe for a classic Mexican dish. But despite claims to the contrary, Hong Kong's first genuine Mexican restaurant is yet to open. 'There's a big misunderstanding about Mexican food,' says Luis Porras, the chef of La Placita which opens soon in Times Square. 'The version of Mexican food which has been made popular by Americans, usually known as Tex-Mex, differs in many ways from real Mexican food. Believe it or not, the Chinese share more of the same eating habits with Mexicans than the Americans do. 'The Chinese eat a lot of seafood, pork and spices. But in the US, Mexican food consists mostly of tacos and burritos, and ground beef with everything - no pork, no seafood.' On the quiet, Mexicans reckon their cuisine is number three in the world, after French and Chinese, but then so do the Italians and the Turks. What is sure is that it is a cuisine with ancient and rich traditions and many diverse influences. And according to Porras, La Placita will be authentic down to 'the very last detail'. Mexican cuisine is above all a marriage of native Aztec Indian and European styles, which the Spanish brought over in the 16th century. The Indian staples were beans, maize, chili, the nightshade family of potato, tomato, fruit, the cactus and seafood. TheAztec emperors ruling from what is now Mexico City, which lies on a plateau 600 kilometres from the coast, organised relay teams of 1,000 runners to carry fresh fish every day from the sea. The chili originates in Mexico. 'Tell that to a Thai or a Sichuanese and he'll say you're crazy, but it's true,' Porras says. Trade links between the the Philippines and Central America, both belonging to Spain at the time, brought the chili to Asia. 'On the other hand, Mexico is indebted to the East for rice, other spices such as black pepper, coriander and cloves, and the mango.' The Spanish brought meat and poultry, cheese and wheat, olive oil and wine, and Mediterranean herbs. The cuisine came under another important influence in the last century when the French occupied Mexico and emperor Napoleon III sent the Austrian-Habsburg king, Maximillian, to rule. His wife, Carlotta, was a Belgian princess and she introduced new ideas such as pastries, souffles and mousses to the court. 'It is quite common to find crepes on a Mexican menu, and a special delicacy is to eat them with a chili sauce and a type of fungus that grows on corn,' Porras says. This fungus is not easy to come by: It grows on maize stalks and can only be harvested for one month in the year. Porras hopes in time to get supplies of this and other Mexican exotica such as maguey worms, various crickets, bugs which, deep-fried, have a crunchy, grassy taste, and escamoles, the eggs of the red ant. Meanwhile, a container-load of the more mundane foods and spices, which should last six months at the 170-seat restaurant on the 13th floor of Times Square, has arrived in town. Fresh fish will be obtained nearer to home for such dishes as Vera Cruz red snapper (baked with onion, tomatoes, olives, capers, green chilis and olive oil) and the much vaunted coctel de mariscos, a seafood cocktail of prawns, oysters, and octopus blanched and served with onions, garlic and tomatoes. Other key ingredients, like cactus, will be flown in regularly. Cactus salad, ensalada azteca, is made by boiling the flat fibrous arms of the prickly pear plant and mixing with tomatoes, onions and vinegar. 'It's considered an aphrodisiac. Maybe it is, because Mexican families are large,' Porras says. Perhaps even more stimulating to sexual desires is a mixture of cactus and chocolate, another gift of Mexico to the world, the cacao bean in former times having been used as a trading coin. Chocolate, too, is one of the key ingredients in mole, Mexico's most famous sauce. Traditionally, for two days, it takes all the patience and energy of all the women of the household to mix and cook some 30 ingredients including chocolate, five kinds of chili, peanuts, almonds, sesame seeds, cumin, cinnamon, bread, tomatoes, onion and garlic into a princely dark, heavy sauce in which to boil a turkey or a chicken. Another speciality at La Placita will be chinita pibil, a typical dish from the Yucatan Peninsula in the tropical south of Mexico. It is pork baked slowly in banana leaves, after being marinated in a Mayan spice mixture called achiote, made of anato seeds,oregano, onions, garlic and bitter-sweet oranges. This, as with many Mexican dishes, can be eaten as a main course or served as a snack with tacos, which are as common and essential as sliced bread in a western sandwich. But in Mexico, no meal is ever complete without refried beans, which always come before the dessert. 'Like fried rice or noodles in a Chinese banquet, without them all hell breaks loose,' Porras says. THe idea for a real Mexican restaurant in Hong Kong came from Austrian Heinz Grabner, who for 12 years was manager of the Foreign Correspondents' Club. In June 1992, the club held a Mexican food promotion in conjunction with Patricia Quintana, a renowned chef, author and researcher. 'For the first time, I came across Mexican food as it really is, fantastic,' he says. 'I was looking for a change so I started to think about opening a restaurant.' Finance was provided by local businessman Ira Kaye, whose company, Lark International, provides Hong Kong with most of its dairy produce. The company was the first to import beef cattle into China. The 7,600 square feet new premises have been fitted out by designer Steven Lombardi, and the total setting-up bill will come to $16 million. Mr Grabner went to Mexico where he hired Porras, who had worked for a short time in a pseudo-Mexican restaurant in Beijing's Sara Hotel after teaching Mexican cuisine at a university in Guadalajara. Later, the two spent five weeks in Mexico on a hiring andbuying spree. Hand-blown glass, hand-painted floor tiles, hand-made chairs and a hand-carved cedar door were all shipped to Hong Kong, along with masks and colourful woven fabrics. 'I'd never spent so much money so fast,' Mr Grabner says. 'I used to lie awake at night thinking maybe I'd bought too much. But later when I opened the 25 different types of tiles, I thought they were even more beautiful than I remembered.' Lombardi, an American architect from San Diego, just over the Californian border, is familiar with Mexican culture. 'Ira Kaye and Heinz came to me wanting a design for a hacienda [Spanish farm house]. I said, 'no way'.' Lombardi wanted something more originally Aztec and Mayan, less Spanish. The result is a blend of ancient and contemporary with a strong emphasis on lighting and colour. So forget pancakes swimming in ground beef, Cheddar cheese and sour cream - that is from way over the border. So is chili con carne. And to destroy another myth: a good tequila should be drunk straight, no lime, no salt. The most usual tequila chaser is sangrita, which is tomato juice, chili and orange juice, served very cold. Beer is also Mexico's national drink, but sticking a wedge of lime in the neck of the bottle is a Californian affectation that has now spread to yuppie communities around the world. 'It would cause trouble back home,' Porras says. 'It ruins the taste.'