ARROZ BY ANY OTHER NAME

I feel like the baseball scout who spotted Willie Mays playing sandlot ball.
Or the producer who caught Meryl Streep acting in a college drama. While I haven't been looking for love in all the wrong places, as the song says, I certainly haven't been looking in the right places for Mexican food. I was eager for a steady, stable, long-lasting relationship, based on honest quality, reasonable price and mutual respect between cook and customer.

Instead, I've had a series of unfulfilling one-night stands, and been angry at myself the morning after.

Until now.
Such Is Life doesn't seem like a particularly promising name for a new Mexican restaurant. But with the food they serve here, they could call it the Hannibal Lecter Memorial Dining Hall and I still wouldn't be fazed. It's great.

The place is small, with about a dozen tables and booths. Paper lanterns, live plants and colorful, hibiscus-print curtains provide the principal adornments. The room has a comfortable, tidy, living-room feel. In fact, the night we were there, owner-chef Moises Treves' two kids bounced through occasionally. The food is central- and southern-Mexican, from Mexico City to the Yucatan. When I asked about burros and chimichangas, our waiter made a face that suggested he'd just as soon serve pastrami on rye.

Instead, the restaurant presents basic, home-style dishes. It's the sort of thing his own mother or grandmother might whip up, our waiter said, to feed a welcome visitor. I don't know if honored guests are ever served chips in Mexico, but you won't get any here. Maybe Moises is hoping you'll spring for an appetizer.

You won't lose if you do. Try queso Angela, a combination of mushrooms, pork and mild chorizo bound with fresh Mexican ranchero cheese. The cheese is stretchy like mozzarella, but with a taste you won't find on a pizza. But why those canned mushrooms? Queso Angela comes with homemade tortillas, rich with the flavor of corn, and three terrific salsas. A mild pico de gallo is fragrant with onions, tomatoes and cilantro; the smooth tomatillo has a bit of a kick; and the strong, smoky chipotle will challenge chile-toughened lips.

Equally appealing for a first course is the chilito, a grilled poblano pepper smothered with three cheeses, resting on a corn tortilla. It costs $3.75 more than free chips. But if you were interested in chips instead of appealing dishes, you'd be home in front of the television with a bag of Doritos.

If my grandmother had been born in Mexico instead of eastern Europe, she might have made the chicken soup served at Such Is Life: a large bowlful of divine chicken broth, fragrant with lemon. Floating in it are lots of shredded white-meat chicken, onions, a hunk of avocado and a hard-boiled egg. That same touch appears in the cream of black bean soup. It's a plain broth with an intense flavor of long-simmered black beans. You season it yourself with four bowls of condiments: onions, cheese, sour cream and bacon. Take it easy on the seasonings-you don't want to destroy the hearty black bean taste. But a dollop of sour cream makes it even richer, a pinch of onion furnishes some bite, and a little crumbled bacon adds a pungent touch. For me, most restaurant meals proceed the same way as a relationship. At first your interest is piqued. Next, if you're lucky, you might discover some common ground. But after enough encounters, you reluctantly admit to yourself you haven't met your one and only.

After the main dishes, though, Such Is Life had me considering Mexican monogamy.

Adobo pork was tender cubes of pork and potato wedges in a mild, aromatic adobo sauce made from ancho chiles. Instead of mushy refried beans, it comes with whole beans sprinkled with white cheese, as well as some tasty, short-grain Mexican rice.

Chicken poblano tasted even better. This dish had lots of shredded chicken (like the kind in the soup) in a mole sauce. Cocoa-based mole is to Mexican cooks what curry is to Indians: the distinctive expression of the chef. On one of his periodic jaunts through the dining room, we stopped Moises and asked him about the mole. The part-Greek, part-Jewish, part-Spanish chef breezily admitted he uses a commercial brand (the kind I like") and doctors it until he's satisfied.

Particularly outstanding was pescado jarocho, a moist, flaky portion of red snapper seasoned with sliced olives, onions, tomatoes, capers and fresh ground pepper. Somehow the fish and the half-dozen toppings succeeded in creating a whole greater than the parts. Even the accompanying zucchini, a vegetable that normally sends me running in the opposite direction, had a pleasant, distinctive flavor. Corn kernels mixed with shredded chiles rounded out this innovative plate.

After only a few weeks, before even the best word of mouth could possibly fill up the tables, Moises is musing about the dangers of too-rapid expansion. In the current Valley business climate, this kind of talk suggests a Napoleonic case of delusional grandeur. Moises' bio, From Cozumel to Phoenix, on the back of the menu, offers more support for this theory.

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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