CHIMI SWEEP

As we sipped our coffee, my Midwestern friend, no particular fan of Mexican food, confessed he actually hoped for a return visit. "I really liked it," he said almost apologetically, with a shrug. Me, too. Valle Luna, 16048 North Cave Creek Road, Phoenix, 867-9100. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Whenever I've driven past Valle Luna on Cave Creek Road (there's one on West Bell Road, too), the parking lot has been jammed. In my old neighborhood, that kind of traffic usually meant something besides great food: a high-stakes poker game in the back room.

But once inside, I didn't hear a hint of rustling cards or tinkling chips. As Sherlock Holmes always said, once you eliminate the impossible, you're left with the solution, no matter how improbable. I could only conclude that everyone here came to be fed.

Valle Luna is gringo cuisine with a vengeance, with suitably accompanying decor. The place looks like someone backed up a U-Haul to a tourist shop in Nogales.

There are two big rooms, each divided into alcoves. Our nonsmoking room was airy and light, with a large rock fountain splashing in the corner. Pottery sconces covered light bulbs behind our maroon booths. The walls were hung with enough serapes and embroidered sombreros to clothe half the clientele. Valle Luna has the look of a cantina right out of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I wouldn't have been surprised to hear the hostess shout out, "Fred C. Dobbs, table for three."

If you've got five extra bucks, you can get a first-class frozen margarita, made with Cuervo Gold and Grand Marnier. Along with decent chips and salsa, it will possibly incline you to play along with a menu that has the predictability of a July weather forecast.

Landing my finger at random on the menu, I picked the chile relleno, taco and enchilada combo. It comes with a nifty alb¢ndigas soup, thick with vegetables and a flavorful meatball.

The relleno and enchilada were right out of the Gringo Central Kitchen, although the taco offered a tasty, shredded-beef filling. The bland beans were short on looks and flavor, but the short-grain rice had a crunchy zest. Still, you can probably get a combo plate like this in your neighborhood.

My friend Barb had the chimichanga plate, a huge one stuffed with chicken. Nothing special. You can probably get one like it in your neighborhood, too.

The best dish we sampled was carnitas picante, what Valle Luna calls "our Sonoran answer to fajitas." For $8.75, you get a platter full of beef, pork and chicken, surrounded by beans, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, picante sauce and shredded lettuce. The meats were wonderful, and smothered in fried onions. It's a nice dish. Maybe you can find one like it in your neighborhood.

Because of the huge portions and the absence of kids, we took our time eating. But every time we paused to chat instead of chew, the buspersons swooped in to reach for our plates. We had to swat them away three or four times before the message got through. When we'd finally finished, we summoned the cowed busperson with a regal nod of the head. Who says American workers can't be trained? The desserts here didn't measure up to Minga's. The flan was certainly large enough, but rubbery and insufficiently sweet. The sopaipillas came six to an order, but they were too bready. And why those awful packets of honey that look like they were hijacked from Denny's? Buy some good squeeze-bottle honey, charge a quarter more and give diners a thrill.

Barb, who has lived on almost every continent except Antarctica and is new to Phoenix, had never encountered fried ice cream before. The version here provided no reason for her to make a run for the border. Valle Luna never pretends to be more than it is: a local hangout with fair prices, generous portions and familiar Mexican food that runs a narrow gamut from okay to pretty good. If your neighborhood Mexican joint doesn't reach this standard, head up to Moon Valley. And you won't have to show no stinkin' badges.

MINE SHAFTED THE FOLKS IN MORRISTOWN MA... v7-22-92

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