CONTEMPT OF FOOD COURT

My visiting mother-in-law gave out a low moan. My next foray, I had just told her, would not take us to posh resorts, cozy bistros or funky ethnic joints. Instead, I was going to eat my way through the food court at Arizona Center, from A to . I welcomed her company, but perhaps she preferred to stay home and supervise the kids?

Deciding that even potential indigestion had its charms, she headed for the car.

Cheer up," I said, grateful for her reluctant aid. I could have picked a career as a proctologist."

Parking my guest at a window-side table, I inhaled deeply and set out toward Gyros 'n Grill, the first stop in my AzCram investigation.

As the Fates would have it, the first thing we ate was the best dish at the food court. Spanakopitta is spinach pie, flaky phyllo dough stuffed with spinach and feta cheese. Gyros 'n Grill served a healthy wedge of it. It came with a choice of two side dishes, and the pair we picked were surprisingly good. Lentil rice was nicely seasoned, and a nutritious alternative to the usual mall side orders of fries and potato chips. Gyros 'n Grill's Greek salad had a generous mix of cucumbers, tomatoes, green pepper, olives and red onion sprinkled with feta cheese. The lamb gyro here wasn't bad, either. Pressed lamb, lettuce and tomato came rolled in a thick pita bread. We found the meat a bit salty, but not greasy, and plenty for lunch.

Overconfident from the pleasant experience with Greek fast food, my mother-in-law flashed me a kindly grin. It didn't last.

Next up was Scotto Pizza. I ordered an unmemorable slice of white pizza with spinach. The crust had a pleasing crunch, but the ricotta and mozzarella had no zip. Only a 100-pound woman could make a lunch of a slice this size, and, at $2.25 a pop, filling up could be an expensive proposition.

The calzone here was even skimpier. Instead of dough enfolding gobs of mozzarella and ricotta, this version had only a sliver of mozzarella. A small animal could have lived in the airspace between the cheese and dough. To supply flavor, I had to ladle on a one-dimensional tomato sauce. On to Fowl Play, where at the height of lunch hour I was the only customer ordering. Here they serve up quarter chickens-roasted, fried or barbecued-with mashed potatoes and a biscuit for $3.50. The piece the counterperson plucked for me seemed longer on bones than meat, but the chicken itself was moister than I expected. The mashed potatoes and gravy, though, must have been imported from my daughter's junior high. It had that authentic school-lunch flavor that cafeteria cooks have spent 50 years perfecting.

And after a bite of biscuit, my Southern mother-in-law shook her head sadly, as if she'd heard that yet another Yankee was invading her hometown in central Florida. Too sweet," she muttered. Tastes like shortcake. It would be good with some strawberries."

The food was starting to settle, and even put down roots, in our stomachs. But we had miles to go before we napped.

Beckoning us with an array of sandwiches was Hello Deli. Oy vey!
The bland Cuban sandwich-turkey, ham and provolone wrapped in a crusty, light breadÏmight have been better named the Annie Hall special. But at least it provided no impediments to digestion.

The Reuben, though, was a $3.95 disaster. At first, some nice, marbled rye bread, like new wallpaper, hid the interior defects. Soon, an overdose of dressing turned the sandwich into a soggy glob, with a few niggardly strands of sauerkraut, a bit of cheese and perhaps the worst corned beef I've ever encountered. I thought I was chewing on the flank of a live cow.

After eating halfway around the food court, we decided to finish this day's meal at Kelly's, a coffee-and-dessert vendor. I asked for the two best desserts, and was handed a cinnamon bun and raspberry muffin.

The cinnamon bun seemed a bit pricey at $1.70, and it lacked the right-out-of-the-oven taste you get at Cinnabon, a competitor at several Valley malls. The muffin, though, was fluffy, not too sweet, and redolent of raspberries.

But watch out for the coffee here. The 85-cent house version I ordered was wretched. In odd contrast, the espresso came out strong, pungent and satisfying.

My mother-in-law's flight home wasn't until 2:30 p.m. the next day, so I talked her into finishing what we'd started.

This time we headed to Chinese Cafe. First we dug into the imaginatively named Combination #4. It featured sesame chicken, fried shrimp, fried rice and veggies.

The chicken came as two batter-dipped balls, ample and tasty. You needed to go on a scavenger hunt, though, to find the two fried shrimp in their greasy batter. The fried rice was a man-size portion dotted with peas and diced carrots. But the best part, surprisingly, was the mixed vegetables, mostly cabbage and zucchini, which actually seemed to combine taste and nutrition. Combination #3 offered sweet-and-sour pork and an egg roll along with the rice and vegetables. Avoid it. Inside three pieces of batter were tiny, bite-size nuggets of flavorless pork, drenched with a gloppy pink sauce. The egg roll had an Ôoff" taste, and I feared taking more than one bite. (This from a man, my mother-in-law remarked, who in the Peace Corps used to eat things that were still moving.)

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