CHAINED HEAT

You've just returned from a summer vacation spent visiting your in-laws in Nebraska. Your coffers are empty and so is your stomach. After two weeks in the heartland, you want--no, make that need--some Mexican food in a hurry.

Have I got a place for you.
Taco Cabana, Bazooka pink and newly opened at the intersection of University and Mill in Tempe, is quick, cheap and pleasant. You can drive through, take out or eat in. You can eat outside on the misted, covered patio. Service is fast and courteous, there's plenty of parking and rest rooms are luxurious by fast-food standards. Best of all, it's open 24 hours.

Taco Cabana is a San Antonio success story that started in a converted Dairy Queen. If you think it looks and operates like Two Pesos, you're absolutely correct. Only you've got it backward. Taco Cabana came first; Two Pesos, a Houston-based chain, is the copycat. A Texas court made this clear when it agreed that Two Pesos should pay Taco Cabana $2 million dollars in damages for precisely this reason.

At Taco Cabana, you order at the counter. Drinks are self-serve and it charges a nickel for water. Collect your food tray when your number is called. All three times I visit, my order is up in less than a minute.

Taco Cabana's freestanding condiment bar offers two types of salsa (chunky and pureed), quartered limes, chopped white onion, jalapeno and cilantro. Both salsas use ripe tomato and have a nice kick to them; the sweet-and-fiery chunky one, in particular, is excellent.

Choose a seat at one of the semiretrometal table and chairs. I sit inside on one occasion and outside on two. Noise is a problem in both places. Outside, eighteen-wheelers, Harleys and fire engines roar by on University Drive. Inside, conversation seems to clatter and rebound off the hard surfaces. Plus, no matter what time of day I stop in, the same peppy Mexican music plays; by my third visit, it no longer sounds festive. If this tape repeats 24 hours a day, I pity the crew.

As for the food, it's pretty decent. A crispy bean and cheese tostada, topped with lettuce and sprinkled with grated cheese, is above average. An al carbon soft taco features a generous quantity of char-grilled beef strips in a flour tortilla. A squeeze of lime, some onion, cilantro and salsa and this baby cooks.

A combo fajita plate comes with guacamole, smoky borracho beans (whole pintos flavored with bacon), rice, lettuce and tomatoes. The beef and chicken fajitas are already placed in flour tortillas and wrapped in tinfoil. They're on the salty side, so I would not recommend them for sodium-sensitive individuals, but I like them--especially when I pile on the add-ons.

The picadillo plate is a homey affair consisting of mildly spiced ground beef mixed with potatoes. My dining accomplice calls it "Mexican Hamburger Helper." Despite the possible accuracy of his remark, I like this dish. Refried beans, rice, lettuce and tomatoes round out the plate.

A chorizo-and-scrambled-egg breakfast taco is less thrilling. The egg-chorizo mixture is barely warm and obviously not made to order. The soft flour tortilla wrapped around the mixture is the breadiest tortilla I've ever eaten--thicker than normal and sort of dry. A miserly order of chips for 79 cents proves to be unsalty and just plain ordinary.

Though it's a bit congested inside and noisy overall, any way you look at it, Taco Cabana is destined to be a hit. The Tempe location is a stone's throw from ASU and accessible by foot or car, the hours are unimprovable, and the food is decent and inexpensive. Domestic and imported beers will be available as soon as the restaurant obtains its liquor license.

We can only hope Taco Cabana's owners will spring for a couple more tapes.

Okay, I admit it. Before I started this job last March I wasn't a regular Cap'n Dave reader. This clearly puts me in the minority, but it's the ugly truth. Now I know the consequences of my actions.

Last weekend I walk excitedly into Rocky Point Restaurant in South Phoenix, notebook in hand, ready to tell the world about my find. This fantasy lasts nearly fifteen seconds, about as long as it takes to spot my esteemed New Times colleague's column prominently tacked to the wall.

Curses! Cap'n Dave has already been here! That winking visage seems smugger than ever from its framed vantage point behind the register. Scanning the column quickly, I grasp that he liked the food ("the beans are a revelation") and seemed particularly interested in the presence of turtle on the menu. In fact, Cap'n Dave's doodle that week was a turtle burro. As restaurant closings have foiled stories for me all week, I vow to overcome this small setback. "Are we staying?" my accomplice inquires. "Sure," I say recklessly. "Why not? We'll see whether Cap'n Dave and I agree."

Happily, we do--on this place, anyway.
I like the relaxed yet lively atmosphere at Rocky Point. The tiny, wood-paneled restaurant is filled with conversation and Mexican jukebox music. And the food is good. I shy away from turtle, out of respect for a childhood pet named George, but what I try, I like.

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