CARIB NEBULA

Coconuts Cafe, 402 East Greenway Parkway, Phoenix, 866-0766. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m. The Caribbean hosts an incredible mix of people. Over the past 500 years, native peoples, African slaves, Spanish conquistadors, English imperialists and entrepreneurs from India have turned the islands into a rainbow of ethnic diversity, if not racial harmony.

Despite the overpowering presence of the gastronomically bland American colossus to the north, Caribbean cuisine remains as multihued and distinctive as the islands' population.

A few years ago, I'd have thought the possibility of two Caribbean-themed restaurants finding a home in the Valley about as likely as spotting an Olympic bobsled team in training on Squaw Peak.

But we live in times that could shake anyone's certainties: South Africa has abandoned apartheid; Arafat and Rabin have clasped hands; Barry Goldwater says soldiers don't have to be straight, just shoot straight. Coconuts Cafe is one new island spot that I'm rooting for. That's because the fare is cheap, tasty and smolderingly, blisteringly hot. If you lack fire in the belly, this place will provide the kindling and strike the match.

Occupying the cavernous location of the departed Champs, a game room and pub, Coconuts has done a decent job of suppressing the past. There's an oasis of fake palms in a corner by the bar which--surprise!--has a thatched roof overhead and a hanging papier-mch parrot. The color scheme is a blaze of vivid Caribbean red, yellow and teal. The inevitable travel posters and prints evoke the islands, as does the self-conscious menu patois. (Referring to the jerked chicken, the menu advises that "Dis is a mus.") But lest folks focused on the food even briefly imagine they've left mainland culture behind, lots of televisions, thoughtfully tuned to the ball game or latest network drivel, jerk them back to reality. Appetizers furnish the first hint that the phrase "Burn, baby, burn" has a 90s application. Satay strips arrive as four skewers of chicken, basted with a peanut sauce that will have you sweating like a tourist in August. On the milder side are Chinese-style pork ribs, meaty and tender, with a teriyaki glaze and bits of yellow and red pepper. The soups sounded so good we were prepared to order them la carte. When our server informed us that soup or salad comes gratis with the main dishes (which the menu doesn't indicate), I felt like I'd just found five bucks. I made an even better discovery when the soups arrived. These were so good that if the entrees hadn't been in the wings, I would have splurged and bought another round. We're all used to thin, salty, commercial-tasting broths that seem to use recipes developed in a prisoner-of-war camp. These soups, though, pack real flavor wallops. The red bean soup, thick with kidney beans, sports a smoked pork kick and an aromatic fistful of mild seasonings. The Jamaican pepper pot, nutritionally filled with spinach and kale, goes right to the snout with a peppery punch. The salad was in the same league with the soup. The chef must have been absent the day the class learned about portion control, because these big bowls came stacked high with greens, tomato, yellow peppers and baby corn, with a pleasing vinaigrette. The waitress wasn't kidding about the food's heat. The kitchen uses Scotch bonnet peppers to set the dishes aflame. According to the Scoville scale, which measures chile pepper heat, this variety is about as potent as the fiery habanero. In sufficient doses, it can rotate your head in a 360-degree swivel. Coconuts Cafe uses the Scotch bonnet to spice up goat meat, an island staple that rarely shows up on Valley menus. Goat meat can have many charms, although tenderness is rarely one of them. But it does have lots of flavor, and adventurous diners can find the meat a source of novel pleasure. Curried shrimp doesn't breathe quite as much fire, but it still proved too hot to handle for one of our tender-tongued crew. At $10.95, it's the most expensive plate on the menu, but diners won't get shortchanged. I counted 18 smallish shrimp surrounding the mound of curry-infused white rice. Jerked chicken is another island specialty. Originally a method of preserving meat (or masking the flavor of meat that had turned), jerked foods feature lots of chiles, oil and spices. Here, the kitchen slathers a steaming coat on chunks of white-meat chicken. It's definitely not one of the Colonel's 11 secret herbs or spices. The entrees are escorted by topnotch sides. Look for yummy fried plantains, whose sweet touch is a welcome relief from the heat. There's also wonderful spicy rice, studded with beans and peppers. If you're not in the mood for a full meal, try the jerked burger. Make sure, however, that you have a cold bottle of soda or Jamaican Red Stripe beer within reach to douse the flames. The chile-tinged crab sandwich is luscious, served on whole wheat with avocado and cucumber. After a meal that can have even a chile veteran's tongue hanging limply over the table, sweets make sense. Coconuts has found a good supplier of cheesecakes--we sampled raspberry liqueur, Oreo and Kahla versions--to assuage the dinner sting. Coconuts Cafe's room doesn't offer much in the way of festivity, elegance or intimacy. And the take-no-prisoners approach to seasonings certainly won't lure the Wonder-bread crowd. But if different, hot and cheap are three of your favorite adjectives, you may want to cruise into this Caribbean port.

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