BY THE TIME I GOT TO TUCSON

Summer is never laid-back at New Times. Ever hard-core, during the hottest months of the year we leave the relative comfort of our offices to drive up, down and around the Valley. Our quest? To discover the Best of Phoenix--something you can judge as well (see Readers' Poll, page ??).

Obviously, long vacations for resident restaurant critics are out of the question. Far too many categories must be judged. But weekend excursions are permitted--and they are needed escapes from daily decisions.

Since I've never lived in Tucson, I find it refreshing to go down there for an occasional summer weekend. It's cooler, no one knows me there and, most important, the drive is short. Besides, it's pretty in Tucson. The sky looks powder blue, the desert pale pink and the architecture is both appealing and historic. Every year before I drive down, I pump for restaurant recommendations everyone who has ever lived, gone to school or stayed for extended periods in Tucson. Funny, I never get many leads: the former Wildcats I poll can't seem to put a name to their schoolday haunts. A fellow staffer who spent his wonder years in Tucson just plain wants to forget about it--good restaurants included. Luckily, one food-loving native pulls through with some solid suggestions for south-side Mexican joints. My weekend guest and I leave Phoenix on a recent Friday afternoon and pull into Tucson right before dinnertime. We check into our lodgings, take a dip in the pool, and then commence the serious business of consulting the Yellow Pages--under "R" for Restaurants. Within minutes I have a list of possibilities. Selamat Makan, Tucson's only Malaysian restaurant, is the obvious choice for Friday night. After all, this type of cuisine isn't available in Phoenix. We check our map, then head out to East Grant.

It turns out the family-owned restaurant is nestled in your basic Arizona strip mall. Inside, the plain interior is green with ficus, yucca and other living plants. The tropical jungle look? Or simply Seventies retro-hippie

decor? As it lists itself as both Malaysian and vegetarian in the "Restaurants by Category" section, I'd say Selamat Makan is trying for both looks. Our waitress is patient, caring and from Vermont. With her assistance we string some dishes into a meal. First up are vegetarian egg roll and vegetarian curried roll. Both are very hot, very fried and very boring. The potato-filled curried roll tastes incongruously of apples and cinnamon. The egg roll is mostly cabbage. Nasal-clearing Chinese mustard helps us cope with ennui.

So far, I'm not wowed. The rest of our meal doesn't change my initial impression. The fish in our curry-like sambal is grainy, formerly frozen cod. Though we ask to have our dish prepared "very hot," the sambal is strictly mild. Wait, I take that back. My weekend guest has found a slice of fresh jalapeno amid the onion, tomato and bell pepper. Whoa! Watch out, pardner, it's still got its seeds. Better cool off with some of that exotic rice topped with toasted coconut.

Chicken satay is pleasant, but hardly dazzling. We receive eight bamboo sticks of grilled chicken pieces coated in a peanut/pineapple sauce.

Archar, billed as pickled vegetables, is simply parboiled cucumber and carrot strips briefly marinated in vinegar and curry. They're not even close to being pickled.

My weekend guest is amazed by the chapati, an Indian flat bread. "It tastes like absolutely nothing," he insists. "Try it." I do, and promptly disagree. "It tastes like grease-soaked burnt spots," I assert. We both agree that it is thin, stiff and dull.

For dessert I elect to try the agar-agar. Now this is exotic: two inches of natural (gray) seaweed gelatin topped with a layer of creamed coconut and mashed banana, served in handy precut cubes stuck with toothpicks, no less. Yikes! I put one into my mouth and quickly realize this is a texture thing. The gelatin isn't Knox-smooth, it's kind of chewy. Maybe a little too chewy for me. I eat two, then stare dismally at the remaining eight cubes. My weekend guest does not volunteer to help me out. I don't blame him.

The Tucsonans at surrounding tables emit low murmurs of approval as they consume their meals. Apparently, mediocre food served on Corelle dinnerware is okay by them.

According to the menu, selamat makan means "enjoy dining" in Malay. I wish I had. Even great service couldn't save this meal.

After a morning of driving around, my weekend guest and I end up at Taco Azteca for lunch. Located across from Bookman's at the intersection of Campbell and Grant, tiny order-at-the-counter Taco Azteca achieves the rare distinction of being attractive and authentic. I love the funky feather- foil-paint-and-Christmas-tree-light mural and the untanned leather chairs.

I also love the food. It's Sonoran style and may be tinier than you're used to--but it is good. I'd go out on a limb to recommend almost anything here. You won't be disappointed as long as you keep the small scale in mind. I've visited Taco Azteca before, so we're eating light today. A birria taco served in a soft flour tortilla is shredded meat marinated in mild red chile sauce. A carne asada taco is likewise soft and features a generous amount of perfectly grilled bits of steak and shredded lettuce. A picadillo burro, petite and filled with ground beef and potatoes, is served with lemon-tinged guacamole punctuated with chips. This plate is so pretty, I begin to think of Taco Azteca's cuisine as Nouvelle Sonoran.

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