El Siete Mares – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Siete Mares Restaurant serves up boatloads of mariscos.

The Siete Mares Restaurant serves up boatloads of mariscos.

Crossing the Rio Grande onto Bridge Boulevard isn’t quite as adventurous as crossing the Rio Grande into Cuidad Juarez, Mexico, but the flesh-rending razor wire fence atop the walls and roofs of some businesses will tell you this isn’t the kinder, gentler side of Albuquerque either.

Fortunately the matador motorist mentality so commonplace in Mexico’s fourth largest city isn’t something you’ll encounter on Bridge. Instead of vehicles which look as if they’ve participated in one too many demolition derbies, you’re more likely to meet up with a procession of highly buffed pick-up trucks with gleaming chrome wheels and mega watt stereos.

Some of the most attractive trucks in town are parked in front of restaurants other people might classify as “dives.” Their drivers, modern-day caballeros, are typically attired in exotic snake or animal print boots, equally exotic belt buckles, creased blue jeans and cowboy hats. These guys know where to find great food.

If you’re an aficionado of authentic Mexican cuisine, follow (but not too closely) the cavalcade of these high-performance, macho machines at around lunch time. Their destinations are generally delicious. Several clusters of Mexican restaurants throughout Bridge Boulevard offer the type of dining experience you usually have to cross our southern border to have. These are restaurants in which it pays to be proficient in Spanish. El Siete Mares (literally “the seven seas”) Restaurant is such an eatery.

A steaming bowl of Caldo Siete Mares.

A steaming bowl of Caldo Siete Mares.

Like other mariscos (seafood) restaurants, the decor at El Siete Mares has a nautical theme with several murals depicting life on the sea. A large blue marlin hangs ominously behind one table while an aquarium teeming with exotic fish is stationed behind another table. Interestingly the restaurant’s walls include almost as many framed photographs of racehorses as it does sea life.

You won’t be seated long before complementary salsa and chips are delivered to your table. The chips are crisp and low salt while the salsa is replete with chunks of white onion, chopped tomato and potent jalapeno. It, too, is low salt, but it’s also quite good.

The menu includes a variety of Mexican mariscos entrees as well as other traditional favorites. What it doesn’t include is horchata, the increasingly popular rice drink. Instead, you can have your choice of Jarritos beverages.

One not-to-be-missed appetizer is the ceviche tostada, a crispy corn tortilla on which is piled a boatload of seafood (shrimp, crab, fish) and fresh vegetables (lettuce, tomato, cilantro) and a smear of guacamole. It’s a bit more pricy ($6.50) than at some Mexican eateries, but it may be worth it. Squeeze a couple of limes on the tostada and you’ve got yourself a tangy, briny and delicious pre-prandial treat.

You’ll find Caldo Siete Mares (Soup of the Seven Seas) at many mariscos restaurants so it stands to reason that a restaurant bearing the name Siete Mares would serve a very good version. The Caldo Siete Mares (pictured above) is laden with seven different types of seafood including shrimp, crab, clams, squid and fish in a hardy broth that includes carrots, rice and tomatoes. You can add lime and the requisite hot sauce if you’d like, but this soup needs absolutely no help. It’s brimming with flavor without being overly salty (a problem for this particular soup).

Non-seafood eaters will find an assortment of carnivore pleasing entrees on the menu. These include steak Tampiquena, a thin slab of grilled beef covered in grilled onions and red chile. The beef is slightly tough and more than a bit fatty, but it’s also quite palatable and is accompanied by cheese enchiladas covered in a red chile sauce.

You don’t have to cross the Rio Grande into Mexico to have a genuine Mexican restaurant experience. El Siete Mares is delicious proof of that.

El Siete Mares
709 Bridge, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 24 November 2006
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $
BEST BET: Caldo Siete Mares, Tostada Ceviche, Salsa & Chips, Queso Fundido

Pueblito Mexicano – Bernalillo, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Pueblito Mexicano shares space with Ashley's, a small 7-11 type store.

Pueblito Mexicano In Bernalillo

Even onto the 21st century the distinction between Mexican and New Mexican cuisine has been somewhat obfuscated. Restaurants which serve cuisine we recognize as uniquely New Mexican (characterized among other things by the use of piquant red and green chiles instead of jalapeno) bill themselves as Mexican restaurants. The situation is exacerbated by ancianos (New Mexico’s elderly population), many of whom refer to their cuisine as “Mexican.”

While many New Mexican restaurants errantly bill themselves as Mexican, neither their menus nor their accoutrements do little to clarify the distinction. That isn’t the case at Pueblito Mexicano.

First of all, the trappings are uniquely Mexican–from the watermelon colored walls to the clay fired pottery strewn throughout.

Secondly, the proof is in the eating. The food at Puelito Mexicano is most assuredly Mexican. While there are many commonalities between New Mexican and Mexican food, there are just as many dissimilarities. Not all New Mexicans seem to grasp that and some complain vociferously rather than celebrating the differences.

When I waste time whining that too many New Mexicans don’t appreciate or understand the differences between authentic Mexican and New Mexican cuisine, my dear wife reminds me that in the end, it’s whether you like the food or not that really matters. We really liked Pueblito Mexicano.

The specialty of the house at Pueblito Mexicano appears to be burritos with eighteen different burritos on the menu. Gigantic (albeit paper-thin) tortillas enveloping a variety of ingredients are on the tables of every diner you’ll observe as you walk into the restaurant. There are breakfast burritos as well as anytime burritos and they are all profuse, brimming with ingredients and topped with red chile and melted Cheddar (not Mexican white cheese as we might have expected) cheese.

The burritos are not only humongous, they are delicious. The carne adovada burrito has very little bite al estilo Mexicano (in the Mexican style). The shredded pork was tender and delicious, albeit with a slight acidity you don’t always get with New Mexican style adovada.

The Pueblito Platter is the restaurant’s sole combination platter, featuring a taco (shredded or ground beef or chicken); a cheese, chicken or beef enchilada and a red chile pork tamale served with rice and beans. The flavorful ground beef taco is served in a grease-laden, soft corn tortilla similar to the tacos you might find in Las Cruces. I ordered my combination platter with a ground beef enchilada topped with “green chile.” The green chile (a New Mexican spelling) is made Mexican style with a jalapeno and tomatillo base. Though somewhat more piquant than the red chile on the masa heavy tamale, it wasn’t nearly as hot as you’ll find at most New Mexican restaurants.

On the chilaquiles, however, the green chile is firecracker hot. Chilaquiles is a traditional Mexican dish consisting of fried tortilla chips bathed in red or green salsa and usually with a cheese topping. At Pueblito Mexicano, the chilaquiles are served with two eggs and bacon, but unless your tongue is coated with asbestos, you’ll want something to cut the piquant heat. Pancakes are a good option. We’ve never had hotter chilaquiles.

Another Pueblito specialty are gorditas, a popular Mexican “sandwich” comprised of a small, thick masa (corn flour) tortilla engorged with beans, lettuce, tomato and beef. Gordita which means “little fat one” in Spanish are baked on a comal, just like tortillas, but may remind you more of pupusas, the national snack food of El Salvador.

Pueblito Mexicano serves Coke bottled in Mexico which has more carbonation (overflying birds beware) than its American counterpart and Fresca, the popular 70s grapefruit flavored soft drink. Better still, a selection of Jarritos is also available. Jarritos is the most popular Mexican soft drink made with natural fruit flavors and with less carbonation than American soft drinks. Also available is horchata which is sweeter even than the pancakes on the menu.

Pueblito Mexicano
1100 South Camino Del Pueblo
Bernalillo
LATEST VISIT: 19 November 2006
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pueblito Platter, Carne Adovada Burrito, Guacamole, Gorditas, Chilaquiles

La Hacienda Express – Bernalillo, New Mexico (CLOSED)

You know you’re in New Mexico when you can order breakfast burritos under the golden arches or green chile cheeseburgers at Wendy’s. In doing so, however, you just might be sacrificing tastiness for the sake of expeditiousness.

An excellent alternative to chain-induced heartburn and burger boredom is a stop at La Hacienda Express, a favorite of locals in the know. While it may not have as many restaurants as the ubiquitous chains, you can still find one in the Nob Hill area (4400 Central, S.E.), one in the far northeast heights (11200 Montgomery, N.E.) and one at Albuquerque’s Sunport where you can get your last (or first) fix of New Mexican food before flying out (or after landing). There’s a fourth Hacienda Express in Bernalillo.

All but the Sunport versions of Hacienda Express are housed in A-frame buildings whose signage announces “breakfast burritos served all day” starting at 6:30 in the morning. If you can find a table, you can eat in or you can drive up and order from an impressive array of New Mexican favorites, including a breakfast burrito that’s worth getting up for in the wee hours.

Burrito, taquitos and horchata

Burrito, taquitos and horchata

These aren’t the banal burritos you’ll choke down under the golden arches. La Hacienda Express crafts formidable burritos overstuffed with traditional New Mexico ingredients and embellished with a red or green chile that packs a flavorable and piquant punch. Being overstuffed, they’re prone to messy spillage (there’s only so much you can stuff into a tortilla) so drivers should be extra attentive should they attempt to consume them in traffic.

From carne asada to carne adovada and everything in between, the burritos are generally very good. Everything in between could mean such unique burritos as chile relleno burritos, fajita burritos and a unique burrito overstuffed with ham, guacamole, pico de gallo and your choice of red or green chile. This particular burrito has become my very favorite.

The “Express” part of the restaurant’s name might be a slight exaggeration, however, because everything is made to order. These burritos don’t sit under a heat lamp waiting for the next customer to pull up. Breakfast burritos are available all day long, but there’s also an impressive array of lunch or dinner type burritos as well.

There is much more on the menu than burritos. In fact, the menu is surprisingly beefy considering the relatively cramped quarters. Not quite as beefy is the green chile cheeseburger features a chile and onion puree that sits atop a waifishly thin beef patty. It’s a good burger, but it takes two to make a meal. Think a very good version of McDonald’s single burger but with real meet and great chile. Rather than having the traditional burger on a bun, ask for a tortilla burger which is much better for some reason. The tortilla burger is served with fries, the type for which it takes three or four packets of salt to induce any flavor.

At La Hacienda Express, the taquitos are terrific (not quite of Espanola caliber, but very good nonetheless), the enchiladas are almost enchanting and the tacos (hard or soft) are tasty.

Wash down your meal with horchata which doesn’t appear on the drive-up menu but is available if you ask for it (at least in the Bernalillo location).

La Hacienda Express
218 Highway 44 West
Bernalillo, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 19 October 2006
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 17
COST: $$
BEST BET: Horchata, Taco Plate, Enchilada Plate, Carne Asada Burrito

La Hacienda Express on Urbanspoon

La Costa Azul – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

La Costa Azul, Mexican Food and Mariscos on Albuquerque's West Mesa.

Costa Azul…The Blue Coast…the name evokes images of brilliant sapphire blue waters, perilous promontories and pristine sandy beaches which seem to go on without end. With over 1,000 miles of coastline along the translucent Pacific, Mexico has spawned a thriving tourist trade, particularly in heavily developed resort locations.

Increasingly, Mexico has also become known for high-quality seafood (mariscos) so fresh that even in land-locked locations like Albuquerque, the mariscos taste as fresh as if caught off the coast of Puerto Vallarta, not far from the famous Costa Azul resort.

La Costa Azul launched in 2005 on the former site of Mariscos Altamar, one of Albuquerque’s very best and longest running mariscos dining establishments. While similarly named, it is not affiliated with Santa Fe’s fabulous Mariscos Costa Azul though the quality of its cuisine might invite favorable comparisons.

La Costa Azul is awash in bright colors–three interior walls reflecting various tones and shades of the Pacific’s translucent waters. The back wall separating the dining room from the kitchen is a shimmering green, perhaps the color of some of Mexico’s most iridescent inland jungle foliage.

The waitress stand sits under an overhanging interior roof replete with grass and reminiscent of the beachside food and beverage stands in some of Mexico’s touristy beach resorts. A large plastic marlin lies on that roof, directly above a high-definition television tuned to what must be the Mexican version of MTV. An aquarium teeming with small, multi-hued sea life sits below the television.

Costa Azul, an excellent mariscos restaurant on Albuquerque's West Mesa.

Costa Azul, an excellent mariscos restaurant on Albuquerque's West Mesa.

Even the salsa is of an unconventional color, more orange than red. It is also quite piquant. Thin, but not quite watery, it’s probably too hot to scoop up and eat like the chunky salsas, but immerse it part way and you’ll still get a good kick.

Even better than the salsa is the restaurant’s guacamole, the color of radiating kryptonite. While lime isn’t uncommon in guacamole, the lime on La Costa Azul’s guacamole was definitely more pronounced. It melds wonderfully with the fresh avocado and the jalapeno which gave it a kick.

The tostada de ceviche mixo, is among the very best you’ll find in New Mexico, matched only by the version served at the aforementioned Mariscos Costa Azul. Raw seafood (crab, shrimp, fish) is marinated (almost pickled) with raw onion, lemon juice, cilantro and green pepper to form not only an absolutely delicious appetizer, but a colorful one as well.

The horchata is served cold with plenty of ice to keep it that way. It isn’t as sweet as a child’s cereal as some horchata is served.

You’ll be hard-pressed to select from the menu’s ocean treasures. The back page of the multi-page menu lists several non-seafood items for landlubbers. There were no landlubbers at La Costa Azul during our inaugural visit.

When you don’t know what to order, it’s sometimes advisable to select something named for the restaurant. In this case, that would be Camarones Costa Azul, shrimp from the blue coast. About a dozen shrimp are wrapped in crispy bacon then topped with melting mozzarella cheese. This is a hit-and-miss entree that is oftentimes desiccated. You might also prefer a sharper Mexican queso, but the mozzarella does its job and is a wonderful complement to the slightly briny shrimp. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that not only is the shrimp de-veined, the annoying tail has been removed for you. This entree is accompanied by ridged French fries, the kind out of a bag, and saffron rice with pieces of carrots and peas. The platter on which this is served is roughly the size of the Thanksgiving turkey platter which means you’ll have left-overs.

Another hit-and-miss entree La Costa Azul manages to do exceptionally well is paella. In fact there are two paella entrees on the menu. Go for the Paella Valenciana, a large platter brimming with seafood (squid, shrimp, crab, fish, clams and mussels); sausage (almost as sweet as the Filipino sausage longoniza) grilled red, green and yellow peppers and a buttery saffron rice. It is better than the much more expensive paella we’ve had at some Spanish restaurants.

La Costa Azul has only one shortcoming and that’s a sparse dessert line-up. The only dessert available during our inaugural visit was a desiccated chocolate cake. At least none of the seafood was as dry as that cake.

Costa Azul
640 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 7 October 2006
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST
: $$
BEST BET: Tostada De Ceviche Mixo, Guacamole, Horchata, Paella A La Valenciana, Camarones Costa Azul

La Norteñita – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

La Nortenita at its former home on Wyoming

La Nortenita at its former home on Wyoming

The only disappointment (and it was a minor one) we experienced during our inaugural visit to La Norteñita was in not hearing the lively Mexican polka “Mi Nortenita” crackling over the restaurant’s tinny speaker system. That would have made our visit to “Old Mexico” complete.

More than most Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque, La Norteñita (the little northern girl) has the look and feel of a restaurant in one of Mexico’s northern states.

That means a kitchen and wait staff (and most customers) barely conversant in English, a lustrous color palate on the stark walls, mañana paced service and flavorsome food not adulterated for American tastes.

The original La Norteñita has been around for several years, situated on Central Avenue in an edifice most Americans might consider a “dive.” Business was so good that its owner (ironically from Puerto Vallarta which is in central Mexico) launched a second La Norteñita restaurant about three miles from the original.

A second La Norteñita was launched at the site which once housed Cha Cha’s, DeLillo’s All American Cafe and Christina’s restaurant, all very good restaurants in a heavily trafficked yet seemingly doomed to failure location. If you had wagered that La Norteñita would succeed where its predecessors failed, you would have lost. That is despite the primary reason it should have succeeded–authentic and delicious Mexican food at Old Mexico prices.

La Nortenita Mexican Food & Mariscos on busy Wyoming Boulevard.

La Nortenita Mexican Food & Mariscos on busy Wyoming Boulevard.

La Norteñita’s second location had several dining rooms in the luminous colors of the ultraviolet spectrum. On one dining room, you were surrounded by almost unnaturally, shockingly bright orange and yellow hues while equally intense blue walls were visible in another room. In contrast, the dark brown vigas on the ceilings seemed boring and out-of-place. On one dining room, the sole decorative touch was a framed picture of a vibrantly plumed rooster.

Belying its stark ambience, La Norteñita serves wonderful food. The jalapeño-based salsa is your introduction to taste sensations which will remind you of Old Mexico. Onion, cilantro, garlic and even jalapeño seeds coalesce in piquant bursts of flavor. Housemade chips have a pronounced toasted corn taste and are lightly salted, crispy and fantastic.

Both breakfast and lunch menus offer tantalizingly tempting options, some of which you don’t often see in Albuquerque restaurants. One such rare treat is the caldo de albondigas. A simple translation would be “meatball stew,” but that wouldn’t do justice to what turns out to be a hearty broth in which swim carrots, onions, meatballs (of course) and a whole red potato. This is Mexican comfort food at its finest.

Chilaquiles is another rare gem. A Mexican casserole originally intended as a way to use up stale tortillas, it has been refined at La Norteñita into a layered dish of corn tortillas, potatoes and beans covered in red chile. Layers of flavor is more like it. Best of all, this dish also comes with carne asada, very well seasoned and flavorful cubed beef.

Entrees are accompanied by your choice of flour or corn tortillas. Savvy diners will always opt for the corn tortillas which might have no equal in any Albuquerque restaurant. The tortilla warmer holds four housemade tortillas, the thickness (not quite as thick as tortillas used in pupusas but close) of which you don’t often see. At the bottom of the tortilla warmer is a hand-laced doily which helps hold in the moistness and heat to ensure your tortillas don’t cool off–not that they’ll have a chance to as quick as you’ll devour them. Did I already mention these are the best corn tortillas served in any Albuquerque restaurant?

La Norteñita is a relatively small restaurant, but it’s big on flavor and ultimately, that’s where it counts.

La Nortenita
9119 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 19 August 2006
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tortillas de Maiz, Salsa, Caldo de Albondigas, Chilaquiles

La Nortenita on Urbanspoon

Taco Cabana – Albuquerque, New Mexico

One of Albuquerque's two Taco Cabana restaurants

Few, including founder Felix Stehling, would have envisioned that the humble San Antonio taco stand he launched in 1978 would eventually expand to more than 130 restaurants throughout Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and a few other states or that it would serve over 46 million guests in a year.  In a scant few years, the self-proclaimed “original Mexican patio cafe” has become a popular and powerhouse alternative to Mexican fast-food industry leader Taco Bell and restaurants of that ilk.
Today Albuquerque has three Taco Cabana restaurants, all thriving.  Much of the attraction is the generous portions of relatively inexpensive and mostly familiar Mexican food served in a colorful, lively environment.  An extensive offering of “cooked to order” Mexican fare includes nachos, quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos, fajitas and rotisserie chicken.  In the respect that meals don’t languish under a heat lamp, it’s more of a full-service restaurant than Taco Bell and is infinitesimally better, too.  While the Duke City has much better Mexican restaurants, Taco Cabana provides a faster alternative.

Chicken Flameante, an entire chicken

For us, the draw to Taco Cabana (especially on balmy summer days) has always been the aguas frescas (literally translated as fresh waters) in watermelon and cantaloupe flavors as well as the traditional Mexican rice beverage, horchata.  Unfailingly fresh, they can slake the most stubborn of thirsts.  Alas, their availability is subject to the whims and pratfalls of distributors who may not always be as reliable as thirsty patrons would like.  True to its Texas roots, Taco Cabana also serves a red cream soda, albeit one made by Barq’s.

Our first dining experience in a New Mexico Taco Cabana didn’t take place until more than nine years had elapsed since we returned to the Land of Enchantment.  From past experiences in Texas, we wanted to avoid the Tex-Mex stylings of Cabana’s cuisine, so we both ordered the grilled chicken which was marinated in a blend of citrus juices, herbs and seasonings then grilled over an open flame.  It was certainly better than the loathsome rotisserie chicken sold in so many local grocery stores (you know, the hummingbird sized chicken with a leathery coating).

Cheese Quesadilla

In June, 2006, we made a U-turn when we noticed that Taco Cabana was offering grilled pupusas, the thick, hand-made corn tortilla stuffed with sundry ingredients (El Salvador’s national snack).  Alas, Taco Cabana’s version bear little resemblance to the pupusas you’d find at any self-respecting Salvadoran restaurant.  The corn tortillas are much thinner with a gritty corn masa texture and resemble thick tacos.  The “grilled” part turned out to be fajita meat, tomatoes, melted cheese and grilled onions.  Not surprisingly, the pupusas aren’t served with curtido (a pickled-cabbage relish with a taste more than vaguely reminiscent of something between coleslaw and sauerkraut).   To say these pupusas were a disappointment is a vast understatement.

Rice and beans

Taco Cabana offers a nice salsa bar with thin, fresh chips and several salsas of varying heat intensity.  The pineapple salsa may bring to mind a doctored up image of a jar of Gerber baby food spiced with hot peppers.  While it looks like baby food, it does pack a punch.

Taco Cabana
3301-01 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
836-1650

LATEST VISIT: 25 April 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 14
COST: $$
BEST BET: Roasted Chicken

Ay Caramba – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Ay Caramba!  That tired old Spanish expression was part of American pop culture long before Bart Simpson popularized its usage on episodes of The Simpsons animated television series.  The expression translates to “confound it!” or maybe “Holy Cow” and is generally used to register surprise.  You can almost imagine the Mexican equivalent of Robin, the Boy Wonder of Batman fame exclaiming “Ay Caramba” as he and his crime-fighting partner stumble onto yet another perilous plight.  

My hopes were that I’d be exclaiming “Ay Caramba” at how great the food is at this mom-and-pop restaurant which launched in 2005.  After all, my friend and colleague Steve Coleman has a relatively high opinion of the restaurant’s “sister” restaurant in Canutillo, Texas, a restaurant owned by the brother of Albuquerque’s Ay Caramba.  It appears good cooking runs in the family.

Ay Caramba’s menu is replete with many traditional favorites of northern Mexico as well as the wonderful mariscos found along Mexico’s coastal seaways…but Ay Caramba!…the menu doesn’t include Ceviche, one of the items that defines Mexican seafood.

Complementary salsa arrives at your table shortly after you do.  The jalapeno and roasted tomato salsa makes sparse use of cilantro and cumin, two overused spices which sometimes detract from the salsa’s inherent flavor.  The chips are thin but robust enough to scoop up the salsa.  Expect to consume two bowlfuls before your entrees arrive (that’s saying the salsa is excellent not that the service is slow).

The beverage bounty includes traditional Mexican aguas frescas including horchata, the beverage made from ground-up rice, sugar and cinnamon.  Ay Caramba’s version isn’t as cereal sweet as you might find at other Mexican restaurants, but it’s quite refreshing.  

Hoping to duplicate the incomparable flavor and magical properties of seafood marinated and “cooked” in lime juices, I ordered Ay Caramba’s plate of three tostadas con camarones (shrimp tostadas) with three limes.  The magic just wasn’t there.  The shrimp is of perfect texture (not rubbery or flaccid) and delicious in its own right, but when you’ve got Ceviche on your mind, there just isn’t a worthy substitute.  

Carnivores will enjoy the pork tamales bathed in red chile.  The masa isn’t so thick it dominates the pork and the chile is an ameliorant, not an overly prominent flavor.

Business is slow at this southwest heights restaurant, hopefully a sign that Albuquerque diners have yet to discover it and nothing else.  

Ay Caramba
5555 Zuni, S.E. #24
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 22 May 2006
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $
BEST BET: Tostadas con Camarones, Salsa, Tamales

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