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Adventures in Eating 

Taste buds dance to a Latin beat at Vaqueros Restaurant (4938 Prytania St., 891-6441), where an ever-evolving menu of culinary innovations provide customers with constant taste adventures from chefs and bartenders as relentless in their pursuit of new fusions as their mascot, Don Quixote, was in his crusade to restore chivalry.

This month, diners at the Uptown restaurant and bar will experience a multitude of taste sensations -- from sweet to hot -- at Vaqueros Chile Pepper Festival in which special foods and drinks are concocted using chiles of all kinds. A highlight of the festival is a contest to select the best salsa recipe (using fresh and dried chiles), with the winner earning a trip for two to Jamaica. That contest, which will be judged at 7 p.m. Thursday (Nov. 15), is open to the public. For information about registration and rules, call Ben at 237-4408.

"The Chile Pepper Festival is a tool to use to get people to try new things," says Foster Smith, who bought Vaqueros three years ago after honing his skills as general manager at Mike's On the Avenue under the tutelage of Chef Mike Fennelly. "The chefs like to get together and do new things throughout the menu. A year ago we did it with chocolate, even the drinks." In addition to giving the chefs and bartenders a chance to try new things, the themed special events also allow customers to expand their epicurean palates.

"There are about 300 varieties of chiles, from bell peppers, some that taste almost watery, to habaneros that are really hot," Smith says. "Each of those chiles also comes in fresh, dried, or smoked and dried, and all of those taste different, so you have a lot of flavors. You can make almost anything out of them. We even make brownies (with chili peppers)."

Vaqueros generally keeps about 30 varieties of chile peppers on hand, and the chefs use them in different combinations and dishes to keep the menu fresh. Except during special festival months like the chocolate and chili pepper events, Smith says he likes to revolve the restaurant's menu so customers, most of whom are regulars, can try new things as well as revisiting dishes that became popular as specials.

"You bring the customers along slowly," Smith says of introducing new and unusual sounding dishes and drinks. "You give them something they're comfortable with and bring them along to other new things a little at a time."

Although people typically characterize Vaqueros' cuisine as Mexican or American Southwest, Smith says neither is really accurate. "We try not to bill ourself as a Mexican restaurant, because most of the stuff we do isn't Mexican," he says. "It's more of a Latin restaurant, but people don't recognize that. Even the items people think of as Mexican are done in a different style. The chefs who make them are from Honduras."

Regardless of the roots, people keep returning for the food -- and the margaritas. In fact, Gambit Weekly readers' polls for six years in a row have selected Vaqueros' margaritas the best in the city.

Part of the secret, Smith says, is that the luscious concoctions are made with fresh lime juice instead of the more common bottled stuff. "Our ingredients for all the items served here start better, so they taste better," he says. "Everything is made fresh by hand."

Despite the general economic downturn experienced this year -- "Business for all the restaurants in this area was down 10-to-15 percent before the Sept. 11 attacks" -- Smith says he is hopeful that business will return to normal and he will be able to revive plans to expand, perhaps in Baton Rouge or Metairie.

"We've been looking at doing a second restaurant," he says, "but Sept. 11 put a little bit of a damper on that. Every restaurant in the city is hurting, but it's not just because of Sept. 11. It's been worse since Sept. 11, but it's really just been a bad year." He's optimistic that things will improve soon, however, and that his staff's innovative mixtures and fusions -- and coveted margaritas -- will continue to bring in Vaqueros regulars and new customers hungry for a taste adventure.

click to enlarge Computer technologist Tripp Frasch (left) and public relations professional Fran Simon help kick off the monthlong Chile Pepper Festival at Vaqueros.
  • Computer technologist Tripp Frasch (left) and public relations professional Fran Simon help kick off the monthlong Chile Pepper Festival at Vaqueros.
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