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Review: Decidedly Mexican

| Saturday, June 16, 2012, 11:39 p.m.

The sign out front of the Franklin Inn Mexican Restaurant centers on the face of the famous Mexican folk hero Ben Franklin.

OK, he's not really a Mexican folk hero, but we believe old Ben would have loved Mexican food if he had a chance to try it.

And he'd probably get a kick out of a Pittsburgh suburb named in his honor -- Franklin Park.

Granted, the Franklin Inn has been dedicated to Mexican food only since 1980. At one point in its history, the restaurant balanced a German and Mexican menu.

But owners Henry and Sue Cibula, who bought the place in 1978, made the decision to specialize in a single cuisine. Over the years, they have made many trips to Mexico to find new dishes and learn more about the cuisine to enhance the menu. Today, the couple's son and his wife -- John and Wendy Cibula -- own and operate the 30-year-old family business.

The Franklin Inn has grown into a neighborhood favorite. The bar area always seems to have a crowd looking for margaritas and imported Mexican beers. On weekend nights, the wait for tables is a long but noisy one with plenty of friendly folks willing to pass a drink through the crowd.

The exterior and interior design is clearly Mexican, with colorful geckos hanging on the painted stucco walls alongside prints of Mexican villages and watercolor landscapes. Glowing chile pepper lights wind around the windows. Food is served on a rainbow selection of sturdy ceramic dishes.

Chips and salsa are complimentary for the first basket, a handy teaser while paging through the menu.

From the appetizers, we recommend the Char-Grilled Chorizo ($5.95). A nice size for sharing, the spicy Mexican sausage -- made exclusively for Franklin Inn -- is served with two warm flour tortillas and char-grilled onions. A side plate of creamy guacamole, sour cream and salsa is offered to dress it up.

The Black Bean Appetizer ($4.95) is another winner. A plate spread with black bean dip is the base upon which hot chipotle pepper sauce is drizzled. A sprinkling of tangy feta cheese chunks comes next. Finally, a fanciful, lace-like design is created from a piping of lemon sour cream sauce. This dish is remarkable with its many sensory levels -- tart, tangy, hot, hearty. It is served with tortilla chips.

A glorious mess of french fries topped with salsa and melted cheese is called Mexican Fries ($3.95 for small, $6.95 for large).

Salads and sandwiches are available for dinner or lunch. Our Famous Taco Salad ($8.95) is served in a crispy flour tortilla "bowl" and includes your choice of ground beef or chicken along with the greens and vegetables. Sandwiches vary from the true-to-theme Grilled Chicken Southwest Wrap ($9.95) to a Pittsburgh standard -- a 10-ounce, battered and deep-fried Jumbo Fish Sandwich ($7.95).

House specialty entrees are served with a choice of two sides -- salad, rice, pinto beans or Black Bean and Corn Salad.

Either salad is a fine alternative. The chilled Black Bean and Corn Salad is a refreshing mix of the main ingredients along with cilantro and cucumber.

The Side Salad is a toss of crisp lettuce with black olives, tomatoes, green onions, croutons and shredded Colby and jack cheese. For the dressing, opt for the intriguing jalapeno vinaigrette.

We enjoyed the Chicken Enchiladas with Poblano Mole ($10.95). The dark and creamy mole sauce is fantastic, made with chile peppers, chocolate and pumpkin seeds.

Chile Colorado ($10.95) is like a Mexican pot roast of slow-cooked, fall-apart-at-a-touch beef. (You also can order a pork version.) It's cooked with chunks of tomato, onion, peppers and jalapeno sauce and topped with Colby and jack cheese. It's not the least bit overpowering in the destroy-your-taste-buds, hot-and-spicy department.

Jumbo butterflied shrimp are the basis of the Mango Shrimp ($13.95). The shrimp are coated with coconut breading and deep-fried to a non-greasy crunch. A puddle of sticky, sweet mango sauce provides depth.

Desserts follow in the Mexican tradition.

There's always room for silky Caramel Flan ($3.50), as far as I'm concerned.

John Sibule's creamy homemade ice cream is the heart of several other desserts.

Mexican Hot Fudge Sundae ($4.50) starts with a flour tortilla bowl that's sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with Mexican fudge sauce. Whipped cream goes on top with a swirl of caramel and chocolate sauce and, of course, a cherry.

Would it be Mexican without Fried Ice Cream ($4.95)• This version comes with caramel or chocolate sauce.

Sopaipillas ($4.95) begins with a bowl of vanilla ice cream centered on a plate. Triangles of crisp cinnamon-sugar-coated pastries fan out like a sunburst and are drizzled with honey. Excellent.

Ben would have loved it.

Ticket restaurant reviewers visit restaurants anonymously. They pay in full for all food, wines and services. Interviews are done only after meals and services have been appraised.

Additional Information:

Franklin Inn Mexican Restaurant

Cuisine: Mexican

Entree price range: $9.95-$13.95

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4-9 p.m. Sundays

Notes: No reservations. Full bar.

Address: 2313 Rochester Road, Franklin Park

Details: 412-366-4140

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