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.)

Your best bet here, I discovered, is getting a side of chow mein-soft noodles with some slivered cabbage, sprouts and carrots-and a side of the mixed vegetables. Next door, so to speak, to Chinese Cafe is Teriyaki Temple. The two places have the same owners and also the longest lines at lunchtime. I had the daily special: steak and chicken teriyaki, steamed white rice, veggies and a soft drink. At $3.75 it's one of the food court's better deals.

They heaped lots of grilled meat and chicken on my rice. But tell them to take it easy on the overly sweet teriyaki sauce. The veggies seemed a cut above the ordinary, with some discernible broccoli and mushrooms tossed in amid the cabbage.

The pot stickers would make a nice appetizer to share if you're lunching with a friend. They're grilled when you order, not sitting around already cooked and collecting grease. At $2.50 for six, they won't break anyone's budget.

I seemed to be the only customer who ever asked for the California rolls, since the woman taking my order asked me three times if I was sure I wanted some. Their version of this fixture of stateside sushi was six small, gummy rice balls with avocado and krab." The novelty wore off by the second ball.

By this time, my mother-in-law was taking frequent peeks at her watch, hoping we might need to speed immediately to the airport. But our early arrival at the food court gave us plenty of time to knock off a few more lunches.

And the last two lunch stalls had not a customer in sight to impede our progress.

Fajita Willy's serves dull Mexican fast-food fare at inflated prices, a combination that seems likely to keep the lines short.

A $2.15 chicken fajita came on a small flour tortilla, with a few tasteless pieces of chicken, a slice of green pepper, and a thimbleful of grilled onions. Even with some lettuce and tomato on the side, it would take at least three of these to put a dent in my appetite.

As for the bean burrito, I'd get no closer to this than I would to Chernobyl. A huge flour tortilla (the kind the fajita ought to have come in) enveloped a glob of indifferent beans. You'll need a plunger to help swallow it.

I thought I'd saved the least-promising vendor for last. The prospect of dining at Hot Dog on a Stick made fasting seem a reasonable culinary option. Anyone who has set foot in a mall has seen the cooking process: A Louis Rich turkey hot dog is impaled on a stick, swirled about in a cornmeal batter and deep-fat fried for three minutes. I brought it to the table and hesitantly took a bite. My goodness, I liked it. The juicy hot dog and the gritty batter, swabbed with mustard, made a potent duo. Even my mother-in-law perked up after a taste, and we agreed that in a world without waist sizes we'd scarf this down in a jiffy.

Only Dusty's remained, a dessert place that dishes out Miss Karen's frozen yogurt and Dreyer's ice cream. But it does make its own cookies and coffee. We sampled an unremarkable chocolate-chocolate chip, an okay chocolate chip and a forgettable chocolate chip, coconut, oatmeal confection called Dusty's special. At three for $1.90, they were no bargain. The coffee, happily, was potable.

It was now 1:15, and my mother-in-law and I headed off to the airport. I got her bags checked in and pointed her in the proper direction. I wondered out loud about Delta's dinner menu. She never looked back.

CHERCHEZ LA FEMME... v5-06-92

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