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.

The two enchiladas on my accomplice's plate are supposed to be different. He ordered one cheese and onion and one green chile and cheese. Yet they are indistinguishable. Both are cheesy and inoffensive. The only green chile that turns up is in the perfumed tamale--which leaves me cold.

Refrieds at Ajo Al's are heavy, man. They resemble peanut butter topped with melted cheese. Spanish rice is overly spicy, thanks to a substantial amount of black pepper, tomato and more green chile. I'm not wild about either.

Mounds of leftover food remain on my plate. I don't know how I'll explain this to our waiter. He'll ask me if I want a take-out container and I'll have to say no. We'll probably both feel embarrassed. You see, though it satisfies some basic need, this meal at Ajo Al's is strictly a one-night stand. These days I have to really like food to take it home with me. Being able to serve it up spicy doesn't exclude a restaurant from being labeled "gringo Mexican." From its nuevo offerings (shrimp fajitas, salad carbon and the aforementioned spinach enchiladas) to its buff dude waiters and white-adobe-cafe look, Ajo Al's has been watered down and formulated to appeal to the rich folks in the neighborhood.

Popular? Yes. Real? No.

From crowded, we go to empty.
Tommy Gringo's Mexican Cantina is bereft of customers when we stop in for a late lunch on a recent Sunday. Actually we feel lucky to have found it. The address is 10305 North Scottsdale Road, but it's buried in the back of a weird plaza. You have to leave Scottsdale Road just south of Shea, turn in by the Baskin-Robbins and drive across a huge potholed parking lot before you see the little restaurant. This may account for the absence of clientele.

I like the look of Tommy Gringo's. It's intimate. Its red vinyl booths are shiny. The room is decorated with colorful serapes, mirrors, sombreros and pinatas. Somehow the fiesta look doesn't bother me here.

We seat ourselves. A sad-looking, low-energy woman brings us menus after a while. Only one other booth is filled and she seems to know its occupants. Off and on, she sits with them.

A basket of chips, a cup of salsa and some hot sauce are delivered to our table. We examine the menu while we put away some chips. Unfortunately, they are not entirely crispy. Some are so soaked with grease they are just plain chewy. And the salsa is so chilled I can barely taste it. No matter. It's a sad affair of canned tomatoes and no cilantro. The hot sauce is thick and homemade, but also lacking subtleties of flavor.

Since we assume we're in Gringoland, we order a green chile cheese crisp to start our meal. It's a hearty one, featuring melted Monterey Jack and longhorn cheddar cheeses. Canned green chiles dot its surface. It's crisp (natch) and greasy, but I like it. I mean, who can resist a cheese crisp?

Both this place and Ajo Al's offer menu options in case you're really really gringo. Hamburgers, cheeseburgers or grilled cheese sandwiches are available. Obviously, we don't carry the gringo test this far. We place our order--for Mexican food--and finish off the cheese crisp.

As always, my accomplice and I find ways to amuse ourselves while waiting for our lunch. We listen to the rock music filling the restaurant and test each other's knowledge of arcane Seventies musical trivia. The time passes quickly.

Here comes our food. Thankfully, Tommy Gringo's portions are sized for normal humans--though, as usual, we've ordered too much for just the two of us.

Tell me, is there anything more gringo than a chimichanga? I don't think so. The chimi I've ordered is grease soaked and chock full of white-meat chicken. A scoop of guacamole and a scoop of sour cream perch atop it; a bed of iceberg lettuce surrounds it. Frankly, I've never understood the appeal of the chimichanga. It's a fried burro. So what? This plain version certainly won't change my mind: It's just grease, chicken and mashed avocado. No hint of any spice anywhere. "Gringo chili" is well named. It looks and tastes straight from the can: ground beef and beans with melted cheese on top. It's not even hot.

While I'm testing the cheese enchiladas and taco plate, a new face appears in the dining room. A man, perhaps the owner, buzzes by to ask how everything is. "Do you need a take-out container? We get a lot of requests for those," he says. "Not just yet," we reply. He heads back to the kitchen.

The enchiladas are average. The corn tortillas are too chewy for my taste. The sauce is red and thick with chile, but too heavy with some dark flavoring. A taco is just what the gringo ordered: large, fried, greasy, piled with way too much cheese, lettuce and tired-looking tomatoes. I do not like it at all.

"How 'bout that take-out container, folks?" The man from the kitchen is back. He places our check on the table. I point to it. "Actually, we wanted to try some of the cheesecake on your menu."

At this he laughs and laughs. My accomplice and I look at each other, then back at him. "Cheesecake," he gasps. "Yeah," I say. "The flavors you list on the menu sound so good: jalapeno, prickly pear, margarita. We'd like to try a piece."

The man wipes his eyes. "Well, you see," he says. "It's frozen. And the cook and I just ate the last two pieces."

I am disappointed and envious. "Is it good? The jalapeno sounds great."
He looks at us funny, then gets a kind of sad look in his eye. "Well, you folks must be the second ones on the planet to ask for it." His sigh is barely audible. "Actually, we don't carry those flavors anymore. Just plain. Not much call for jalapeno cheesecake. Couldn't give it away." And that just about summarizes "gringo Mexican." It is, in a word, unadventurous. If Tommy Gringo's Mexican Cantina survives, it will be in spite of its location. The food is par for the course. The name says it all.

Ajo Al's Mexican Cafe, 9393 North 90th Street, Scottsdale, 860-2611. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. (or so), Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (or so), Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. (or so), Sunday. Tommy Gringo's Mexican Cantina, 10305 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 596-1633. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 2 to 9 p.m., Sunday.

anywhere

When I want Mexican food, I want the real thing. If I were satisfied with cute names and phony decor, I wouldn't need to live in Arizona.

ajo al's

He'll ask me if I want a take-out container and I'll have to say no. We'll probably both feel embarrassed.

tommy gringo's

"We don't carry those flavors anymore," he says. "Just plain. Not much call for jalapeno cheesecake. Couldn't give it away.

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