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Howard County has other places where you can get Mexican food, but a $100 margarita? I don't think so.

Azul 17, Columbia's new Mexican restaurant and tequila lounge, offers more than 100 tequilas and 17 signature margaritas. It doesn't give those margaritas away, but none of them costs over $17. However, those who are feeling flush can order one of two other margaritas, which are assembled tableside: the Ultimate Margarita made with Tequila Patron Platinum for $40 or the Rockefeller Margarita made with Tequila Don Julio Real for $100.

But if you want to watch something being prepared tableside, I suggest Azul's guacamole for two. It will cost you $90.50 less. Azul's guacamole is made with a dead-ripe avocado, chopped onion, fresh lime, cilantro, serrano chile and chopped fresh and sun-dried tomatoes. Next time, I'd ask the server to hold the sun-dried tomatoes because the occasional chewy bits seemed out of place. Other than that, though, it was very good.

Azul 17 is a surprising place. It's located in a small strip shopping center along with several other very different ethnic restaurants: Akbar, Nichi Bei Kai and Pho Dat Thanh. I'm not sure you would guess Azul 17 was a Latino restaurant when you first walk into the door if you didn't notice the murals in back. It's very contemporary, almost Asian in feel, with lots of white, including white leather seating in the dining room and blue in the bar. We were in a booth right by both the kitchen door and a service station, which wasn't great. And it was chilly there that night.

If you think of Mexican food as cheap eats, better head somewhere else. The menu features intriguing-sounding small plates, entrees and enchiladas; and it's easy to keep ordering when something strikes your fancy - and thereby run up the bill.

You might get the lime-sparked salmon ceviche with bits of mango and pineapple and then want something a bit more substantial, like the grilled cactus you wrap in Azul's handmade tortillas, along with a mix of tomatoes, onions, cilantro and tomatillos. Or the trio de sopes - thicker, even more delicious corn cakes, piled with shredded meats, lettuce, salsa and crema (a sort of Mexican creme fraiche).

If you order an entree, you might not have room to sample small plates like the scallops seared in pumpkin oil with a scattering of toasted pumpkin seeds or shrimp fixed several intriguing ways. But if you don't order an entree, you would miss the best dish of the evening, the carnitas patria.

The layers of flavors start with a sort of black bean and chorizo sauce, then mashed boniato (white sweet potatoes), then shredded roast pork, sauteed so the shreds have crisp edges. Red, green and yellow peppers and onions are sauteed with it. It's a great combo of textures and assertively good tastes, and it's presented artistically.

Azul has a crab cake "with a Mexican twist" on its menu. It might be a very good crab cake, but why have a crab cake at a restaurant that offers red snapper Acapulco-style or a seafood casserole of fish, clams, shrimp and scallops in a tomato-based broth, decorated with long "spaghetti" strands of zucchini and plantain chips?

Azul's corn tortillas are so good it almost doesn't matter what - shredded chicken, beef or crab - you roll in them when you order the enchiladas. The fillings include a red chile sauce, shredded lettuce, queso fresco and crem a.

Actually, I'd probably skip the crab because the open-faced quesadilla with cheese, shrimp and crab tasted a bit fishy, and I think the culprit was the crab. The enchiladas' chicken filling was pretty good, though.

Azul's desserts include a very sweet, very rich goat's milk flan with dried figs in rum. But after the meal we had had, about all we needed was the moist tres leches cake, made in house. It would have floated off the plate if its spongecake base hadn't been soaked in sweetened condensed and evaporated milks and cream. A meringue frosting topped it off.

By the way, even though none of us ordered one of the super-duper tableside margaritas, I did try the traditional, the cheapest margarita on the list at $9. It was delicious, made with fresh lime and agave nectar, rather than the mix you often get. But there was so much ice in the glass it really wasn't worth it. Even better-tasting (and without as much ice) was the piquant mulata margarita ($11) made with tamarind puree - not quite as sweet - with a rim of chile piquin (pepper) instead of salt. Don't miss this one if you're up for something new.

The service at Azul 17 was good the night we were there, but the place was half-empty. It has the potential to be a hot spot because, although pricey, it's offering something a bit different in the area. Then it could get crazy.

Don't come here if you're looking for cheap, filling Mexican food or Tex-Mex. That's not what you're going to get. Azul 17 is a place to go if you want to try some authentic Mexican dishes you can't get everywhere. Or, of course, a $100 margarita.

Azul 17

Where: : Columbia Market Place, 9400 Snowden River Parkway, Columbia

Contact: : 410-309-9717

Hours: : Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, for dinner only Sunday - brunch soon

Appetizers: : $3.50-$13, entrees: $14-$22

Food: : ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Service: : *** (3 stars)

Atmosphere: : ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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