ARROZ BY ANY OTHER NAME

But our waiter Luis told us he's followed Moises for 12 years, from Cozumel to Phoenix. I believe in his food," he explained.

This night's two desserts, like the previous courses, showed Moises' confidence might not be entirely misplaced. The small napolitano was a combination of flan and cheesecake, custardy and cheesy. And Luis said Moises had just finished whipping up the luscious cream poured over our cinnamon-topped strawberries. Such Is Life seems to have everything going for it. An intimate room, first-rate ingredients, careful preparation and fair prices are reason enough to try it. Although the problem of finding good Mexican food doesn't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, I think this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

On the other hand, recently opened Playa Hermosa and I are still in the acquaintance stage.

Located in a half-dead west-side shopping mall, it's a family dining spot, despite the pool tables in the back. Later in the evening, live bands or deejays heat up the dance floor.

There's a long bar with racing blue lights flashing on the steps leading up to it. Behind the bar is a huge mural of rolling surf and palm trees, and a nifty portrait of a '56 Chevy. The dining area features pool-hall lighting and gum stuck to the back of my wife's chair.

We quickly got some fresh chips and two salsas that were worth digging into: a red, soupy mixture and a thick mix of cilantro, onions, tomatoes and hot chiles. Our beers also showed up promptly.

But then began a serious wait. By the time our soup came, we had nursed those beers long enough for the kids at the next table to grow up and raise their own families. The service in general seemed pretty unmotivated-we also had to ask for each individual piece of silverware.

The big bowls of soup were the clear stars of the meal. Chicken xochi, only $3.95, came with a chicken leg and thigh, hunks of avocado, onions, rice and lots of cilantro in a chickeny tomato broth. It was enough for a meal, the kind of heavy-duty chicken soup that can double as a cold remedy. The only ailment it couldn't cure was the frustration of waiting 45 minutes for it.

Mexican potato-and-cheese soup had lots of potatoes and gooey white Mexican cheese floating next to mild sliced chiles and onions. The creamy tomato broth made it taste even richer.

Even an old standard like tortilla soup came to life. Shredded beef, onions and crunchy tortilla strips rested in a flavorful beefy and salty broth.

But kitchen and service again conspired against us. Not two minutes into our soups, out came the main courses. Our waitress rearranged the glasses and condiments so she could perch the entrees on the table and fled, leaving us with piles of food, bowls and dishes. Pescado a la veracruzana (red snapper festooned with olives, chiles and bay leaves) got us somewhat over the grumps. It was beautifully cooked, but nowhere near as torching as the menu promised (HOT"). The rice and beans, though, seemed to come from some Rice and Bean Institute, supplier to 99 percent of Arizona's Mexican restaurants.

Camarones fantasia could have been named the Cholesterol Special. Four tasty, bacon-wrapped shrimp came in a lake of lemony butter, but, at $9.80, an even half-dozen wouldn't have seemed excessive. The cup of fresh vegetables-broccoli, cauliflower, carrot-accompanying it was a good idea. Too bad they sat in a gloppy sauce that tasted like canned cream of mushroom soup.

The carne asada platter, though, had us reconsidering the virtues of vegetarianism. The tough, overcooked slab of steak was apparently seasoned only by time. We were relieved to discover Playa Hermosa has no desserts. It's not that we expected some foul-tasting sweets. But we wanted to see our kids again before they left for college in 1998.

DOWN THE DRAIN ARE WE HAVING A CRISIS Y... v4-22-92

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