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Red Mesa blends flavors of the Southwest

Sharon Henry jokes that her mom's idea of a gourmet meal was macaroni and cheese served with chunks of Spam. Her fanciest dessert consisted of alternate layers of red and green Jello with a dollop of whipped cream.

Michael Henry quips that his mother's culinary skills were no better.

Perhaps that is why the couple, who moved to St. Petersburg from New Jersey almost eight years ago, have developed such a discriminating taste for food. They said credit also should go to her Italian grandmother and his gentleman farmer grandfather, both of whom appreciated fresh, flavorful food.

After moving to Florida, the Henrys searched, seemingly in vain, for a restaurant whose food was not the bland fare served by their mothers. It was not until about 18 months ago, after sampling several Thai restaurants, where their craving for bold flavor partially was satisfied, that they found Red Mesa.

"This place is very high-quality," Sharon Henry said during a recent lunch at Red Mesa, whose specialty is regional Mexican and Southwestern food. "You can tell the care and quality they put into the food. Their food is very, very fresh here."

It is not without some effort that Red Mesa has earned that reputation, said Pete Veytia, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Shawn.

Using fresh ingredients is "very labor-intensive," he added. "We open nothing out of the can. I think that people are able to taste the difference."

That the Henrys, residents of the Magnolia Heights neighborhood between 9th Street N and 16th Street N, and 30th Avenue N and 38th Avenue N, appreciate the use of fresh ingredients is not surprising. What else would one expect from anyone who grows their own peppers and herbs, makes their own chutney and bread and, added Sharon Henry, "hardly ever uses anything from the can?"

As one can imagine, items like Jello and Spam are not on the Henrys' supermarket shopping lists.

"All we usually buy there are our staples like Kitty Litter," said Sharon Henry, who works as a claims report administrator for Allstate Insurance Co. and is a great fan of true crime stories.

The couple, whose main hobby is bird watching, can be found armed with binoculars, cameras and bird books anywhere from Fort De Soto to Sanibel Island.

They do not own a microwave.

"It takes the fun out of cooking," said Michael Henry, an avid cook who concocts chili and chutneys made with the harvests of his garden.

"He's a very good cook," said his wife. "I'm the dessert person and he's the entree person."

Michael Henry, a maintenance electrical specialist for The West Co., added, "I like to eat good food, so I cook it myself."

Except, that is, when he and his wife visit Red Mesa at 4912 Fourth St. N.

"The chef is not afraid to use spices," Michael Henry said of the restaurant, which uses a variety of dried and fresh peppers in its cooking.

The restaurant has been open for about a year and a half. Previously, the Veytias operated the successful Seabar Restaurant at the same location. A proliferation of seafood restaurants in the area, many of them chains, caused the couple to rethink their approach. It seemed only natural, said Veytia, that with his Cuban background and his wife's Mexican-Irish roots they should offer the public a restaurant with Latin flavor.

The Henrys enjoy the variety of food offered at Red Mesa, which offers largely different dinner and lunch menus. The restaurant should not be thought of as just another place with pretensions of serving Mexican food, they added.

Despite its highly spiced food, Red Mesa's clientele is not limited to naturally adventurous eaters like the Henrys.

"There are a lot of young people, families, a lot of elderly people that are coming out to experience the different flavors of food," said Veytia. "I have to credit the proliferation of cooking shows for giving people the exposure to different cuisines."

And the non-smoking restaurant that serves tea brewed with hibiscus buds is not afraid to be different.

"We do it our way," Veytia said. "The word is getting out there that we do have a unique way of doing things."