MEX SURROGATE

I don't just work on the Best of Phoenix section, I read it. When our annual special insert came out in September, I noticed that Sombrero Joe's was voted Best New Mexican Restaurant by New Times readers. "Hmmmm," I thought. "I ought to check this out. See what I've been missing. Maybe the citizens are on to something."

Unfortunately, when I finally motor up to Seventh Street and Bell Road in early October, Sombrero Joe's is closed. Not just for the night. Permanently. A big "For Lease" sign hangs in the window.

Disappointed and far from home, I realize there's nothing left for me to do but head over to Ajo Al's Mexican Cafe in North Scottsdale. It's still in business, the two names are similar--at least in spirit--and I'd intended to go there anyway.

You see, dear readers, our story for this week concerns "gringo Mexican" restaurants. Though I can't take credit for the phrase, I employ it here because it so aptly describes south-of-the-border cuisine altered to suit north-of-the-border taste buds. People whose palates are more pleased by meat and potatoes than menudo and jalapenos. Individuals who think a taco is a taco is a taco: crisp, filled with beef and topped with orange cheese, lettuce and tomato.

Before I'd ever heard the term "gringo Mexican" I assiduously avoided this kind of eatery. When I want Mexican food, I want the real thing. Hey, if I were satisfied with cute names and phony decor, I wouldn't need to live in Arizona, would I? I could live in Any City, USA, and eat at the chain Mexican place near the mall.

With this skeptical attitude firmly in place, my dining accomplice and I enter Ajo Al's. It is almost eight o'clock at night and the restaurant is crowded and noisy with lots of kids and lots of tables jammed closely together. R.C. Gorman-style prints and fake cacti complement the well-moussed, well-dressed clientele. Everyone looks comfortable here.

Except, perhaps, us.
We are seated at a small table along the teal-colored vinyl banquette. On our left, the young son in a family of four sprawls across the bench seat and kicks his feet in my direction. Periodically his father pleads with him to "sit up and behave." To our right, a large couple shares the inside seat and ingests an enormous amount of food in a short amount of time.

Ajo Al's menu is large and requires a certain amount of study. Our handsome young waiter checks with us a couple of times before telling us to flag him down when we're ready. Two plates, a basket of chips and some hot sauce in a cruet are brought. While we read about spinach enchiladas and seafood salad, we munch.

Finally, we are ready to order.
"Is it this busy every night?" we ask. "Yes," our waiter answers.
Wow, I'm impressed--though for me, a crowded, noisy restaurant has all the appeal of a crowded, noisy movie theatre. Volumes of people have rarely improved my enjoyment of anything.

But I like our waiter. He's on the ball. When he realizes the items my accomplice has ordered a la carte could be ordered more cheaply in a combination, he speaks up. "Listen," he suggests. "Why don't you order the number four? It'll save you some money."

"Thanks," we say in unison. "Great idea."
He's thinking a minute later, too, when I order a dish listed on the menu as "Hot! Hot! Hot!" "That's hot," our on-the-ball waiter warns. "Right," I say. "I know. That's what I want."

He leaves us and we continue with the chips-and-salsa routine. The chips leave a greasy film on the roof of my mouth. The salsa is mild and hard to spoon from my shallow plate. I'd rather scoop it out of a communal cup, if you want to know the truth. I'm not afraid of sharing.

Our entrees emerge from the kitchen in prompt fashion. Portions are huge. A giant plate filled with refried beans, rice and steak picado verde is placed in front of me. An equally hefty plate of rice, beans, a two-inch-high tamale and twoenchiladas is set before my accomplice. We stare in awe for thirty seconds or so, then dig in. I cannot imagine eating all of this in one sitting. How did the people on our right do it?

As promised, the steak picado verde is very spicy. The menu attributes the heightened heat to Anaheim chiles, but I don't see the big, mild peppers anywhere. What I recognize instead are slices of the smaller, hotter serrano chiles. As for the steak: The seared bits of beef are bite-size, but too chewy. Surprisingly, sauteed onions, tomato and red pepper don't do much for the flavor. The whole thing just tastes hot in a macho, unsubtle way.

There is so much food here, I feel abused. I eat and eat but don't seem to make a dent. A side of pico de gallo comes in a mini fried tortilla shell nestled into a corner of my plate. The pico is pale but fiery hot. A little bit of this stuff goes a long way.

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