CHIMI SWEEP

Minga's, 4323 West Cactus, Phoenix, 978-5167. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Deep-thinking book reviewers don't delve into the latest Harlequin romance to keep up with fiction's cutting edge. Music critics don't analyze the latest Paula Abdul CD to get insights into harmonic relationships. And students of cinema don't dissect Lethal Weapon 3 to make a point about film theory.

Why should they? The heaving bosoms, pounding beat and endless violence aim no higher than satisfying the desire of the masses for comfortable, nonmenacing diversion.

Location Info

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Valle Luna Mexican Restaurant

16048 N. Cave Creek Road
Phoenix, AZ 85032

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: North Phoenix

Kind of like gringo Sonoran-style Mexican food. Because this sort of fare--chimis, fajitas, tacos, enchiladas, tamales--doesn't try to soar, it runs few risks. It has all the shadings of a Stephen King novel, a Hammer rap or a Charles Bronson performance. But it's just as crowd-pleasing. We checked out a couple of the Valley's busier spots to see why.

Minga's, a well-known west-side hot spot, has tackled head-on the greatest source of popular resistance to Mexican food: It's fattening.

The restaurant has come up with a special "Ultra-Lite" menu to complement its regular choices. It offers all the usual Sonoran suspects, but no lard, pork or beef. Instead there are veggies, fish and canola oil. We four weight-conscious adults doubtfully took the bait. By dinner's end, we were hooked.

Minga's is a dimly lighted place with a candle on the table. Wood paneling and latticework are background and support for Aztec pottery figures, ristras, red-chile Christmas lights and a trio of bean pots over a doorway. Beer signs, posters and a red neon "Salsa" sign compete for your visual attention, while piped-in mariachi music grabs your ears. Our blonde waitress sported a black, ruffled "Mexican" outfit.

An excellent chunky, mild salsa and tricolored chips quickly appeared, along with serviceable, half-price, Monday night margaritas. The sipping and dipping didn't give any hint of the main courses to follow. But they packed enough calories to send us to the Ultra-Lite listings on the menu. From the 13 choices, I commandeered the most expensive, the $12.95 halibut fajitas. (The other dishes run about six or seven dollars.) The enormous black skillet arrived sizzling hot, and stayed that way after the waitress placed it on a metal rack over a candle. On a deep bed of Mexican rice rested crunchy strips of carrot, mild green and red pepper, saut‚ed onions, lengths of squash and at least a half-pound of juicy hunks of halibut. This was all cunningly heaped and balanced, and impossible to eat without sending veggies flying onto the table, over the chips and into my friend's glass of water. I made two bursting tortillas and still had enough for a healthy doggy bag. I'd come back here just for the halibut. And I barely touched the two side dishes, a platter of cheese-slathered whole beans (not the dreadful mush you often get), and a tasty, offbeat dish of calabacitas--diced zucchini, flecked with onions, tomato and corn with more melted cheese. Good as my food was, my colleagues showed no interest in abandoning their own to help me. Minga's veggie-shrimp chimichanga is not deep-fried, but crisped in the oven. By my reckoning, this process saves about a jillion and a half calories. It's crammed full of carrots, peppers, onions and squash, which appear to be the vegetables of choice here. It was also surprisingly loaded with shrimp--not those awful, tiny creatures that turn up in everything from shrimp salad to bad shrimp cocktails, but real, briny, medium-size shrimp that you can't swallow in one bite.

The chimi, too, came with beans and a bowl of the diced zucchini. Minga's Ultra-Lites may have fewer calories, but I was starting to suspect that the huge portions might be a compensating mechanism, like drinking a couple more "lite" beers.

Two of us went the combination route. Tacos don't sound too promising under the best of circumstances, and a veggie taco seems unlikely to aspire beyond palatable. But the taco of saut‚ed vegetables had us shaking our heads in disbelief. It's amazing what fresh vegetables, properly seasoned and cooked, can taste like.

In fact, wherever the vegetables showed up--in the enchilada, tamale, taco, chimi or fajitas--they really added zip. Only the bean tostada, an ordinary bean-and-shredded-lettuce mediocrity, sharply recalled us to the fact that we were chowing down gringo cuisine. Eating Mexican health food didn't dampen our curiosity about desserts, especially after the waitress's boast that Minga makes them herself. She whips up a passable skim-milk flan, topped with Lite Cool Whip. Unfortunately, it reminds you why you like thick, custardy, whole-milk flan in the first place. But the rice pudding doesn't suffer at all from its skim-milk origin. Firm rice and lots of cinnamon and raisins had us dipping in four spoons at once. However, my real thought was: Damn the calories, full spoon ahead. So I tried manzana delight, a deep-fried cherry burro sprinkled with cinnamon and topped with ice cream. It was clearly made to order, fresh and steaming with sweetened whole cherries. The chocolate cake, rich, moist and huge, also won our admiration.

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