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Eliana's, 1627 North 24th Street, Phoenix, 225-2925. Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Life has a way of throwing cherished myths right back in your face. I've had a hard time coping with reality at least three times.
First, I learned there was no tooth fairy. Later, when I joined the work force, I discovered that the puritan virtues of diligence and hard work were not always rewarded.
And now I've found out that most downscale ethnic restaurants are not run by great refugee chefs who fled to America to prepare huge amounts of exquisite native specialties for less than the cost of a week-overdue library book.
1627 N. 24th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85008
Region: East Phoenix
It's unlikely I'll have my faith in the tooth fairy restored, since I've become one myself. And everyone in the downsizing 90s knows it's better to be the boss's lazy brother-in-law than a nose-to-the-grindstone employee.
But I may have to reassess my position on cheap ethnic places. Eliana's does serve large amounts of exquisite, native Salvadoran specialties, for about the cost of a three-week-overdue library book.
Even in its larger, brand-new digs, Eliana's still sports the traditional, laminated-wood, ethnic-restaurant look. A few posters of the homeland, a Salvadoran flag and a couple of colorful, cloth scenes of village life provide most of the visual stimulation.
But the food is what really grabs your attention.
It's served by a patient, friendly man, the cook's husband, who smoothly guides first-timers through unfamiliar territory.
We started off with soup of the day, alb¢ndigas, a big bowl of flavorful chicken broth, swimming with chunks of carrot, potatoes and an oversize meatball, that would fill up most nonprofessional bellies. Squeeze in some lemon to add some zip.
Don't pass up, under any circumstances, the outrageously good pupusas, corn masa patties stuffed with meat, beans and cheese. They've got a rich, homemade fragrance that's positively addicting. Those determined to gild the lily can spoon on the two tasty condiments at the table: a pungent tomato salsa and a vinegary chopped cabbage.
There are only two full-fledged main-dish dinner plates here. Mojarra frita is a whole, fried tilapia, an Arizona-farm-raised fish that's turned into quite a local industry. It's a mild, white-meat specimen, with not too many bones. A young server, aiding his father, thoughtfully asked if we preferred the head removed before its appearance at the table. We did.
It's a crispy critter, not in the least greasy, with a fresh, clean taste. It comes with undistinguished rice, beans and salad, but also with powerful, homemade corn tortillas, thick, aromatic disks that bear no resemblance to store-bought versions.
Pollo encebollado is the other choice, a hefty hunk of tender, fried chicken with all the fixings for $5.95. After you demolish it, you may long for a day of toil in the lower forty instead of behind a desk. It's filling, and requires some working off.
Rather than gorge on the rice and beans, though, spring for an extra three bucks and get the platter of thick-cut, fried yuca, a starchy, potatolike tuber that was obviously created to be dropped into a vat of bubbling oil. It may spoil you forever on French fries. One side order is plenty for two people.
Even better is the dreamy pl tano frito, fried, ripe plantains lapped by colorful puddles of pur‚ed refried beans and thick, white cream. If there's such a thing as edible art, this is it.
There's a native dessert, quesadilla Salvadore¤a, an offbeat, grainy concoction made from corn. It's cheesy and a bit sweet, a pleasant way to finish up.
And diners not hooked on soda pop should slake their thirst with a cooling, freshly prepared drink of apple, pear and pineapple, pulpy with bits of fresh fruit. It's so refreshing, you'll almost be glad you were parched by triple-digit temperatures.
By itself, Eliana's won't revive lost faith in the Easter Bunny, honest politicians or American automobile manufacturers. But it keeps the flame of hole-in-the-wall ethnic gem alive.
Papa's Kitchen, 808 East Indian School, Phoenix, 279-5174. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Papa's Kitchen, by contrast, would have to undertake significant capital improvements to reach hole-in-the-wall status. Its ramshackle storefront, in a ramshackle strip of ramshackle shops, doesn't hold out the prospect of epicurean delights within.
So much for appearances. There may be better meals in town, but they're not cheaper. And if there are cheaper meals, they're not better.
Look up the word "funky" in a dictionary and you'll probably see a picture of this joint's interior. A blaring television set, whirling fans to supplement insufficient air conditioning and some beat-up tables and chairs indicate that Papa hasn't been plowing profits back into plant and equipment. To be fair, though, most of the business is takeout.
Three charming, gaily colored paintings of middle Europe hint at the Hungarian foundations of Papa's cuisine. Two of the paintings feature bucolic village scenes. The third, possibly executed by American painter Grant Wood's Budapest cousin, could be called "Hungarian Gothic." It highlights a woman with sausages and a native hoisting a barrel of local wine.