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.

Banana Bay, 6810 East Fifth Avenue, Scottsdale, 423-8010. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.

A pricier and more domesticated outpost of Caribbean fare is Banana Bay. Unlike Coconuts Cafe, it's for the kind of folks who like to maintain eye contact with the cruise ship even when they take a shore excursion. The decor is pure, travel-brochure Caribbean. The far wall is cleverly painted to create the illusion of looking through windows and an open door onto a pristine beach with turquoise water. "You know, that may seem phony," said my pal Barb, giving it a critical eye. She spent a decade in the islands, until Hurricane Hugo blew away her house--while she was still inside. "But that's how it really looks." There are also colorful, tropical-themed paintings, fishing nets entrapping fake crustaceans draped across the wall and honest-to-God real banana plants. The appetizers have a gentle island touch. Plantains stuffed with ground beef are deep-fried and served with a thick, sweet peanut sauce, wonderful for dipping or eating by the spoonful. Banana Bay's cooks get around the conch problem--they're often about as tender as the rubber band holding the Sunday paper together--by grinding the mollusks up and serving them as fritters in the mild red pepper. The kitchen here doesn't rely on chile fire to make a culinary statement. Instead, other tropical flavors--rum, fruit and brown sugar--play a more important role. The dishes are sufficiently offbeat to tempt the mildly adventurous, without going too far toward native heat. For example, you won't find volcanically hot goat curry anywhere on this menu. But you will find a delightful chicken Aruba. It's big chunks of chicken breast in an intensely rich, mild curry sauce, thickened with mango chutney, peanuts, bananas, raisins and a hint of coconut. The platter is fruity and sweet, and quite filling once it's swirled into the accompanying mound of rice. The halibut gets an island treatment so thorough that you can hardly recognize it's fish. Halibut fillets are sauted in butter and garlic, then heavily layered with lots of onions, pepper and tomato. A plentiful dose of banana rum completes the effect. I half-expected the server to strike a match and turn it into a flaming dessert. I'm still not sure how much I liked it--I was still making up my mind when I discovered I'd finished the fish off. Actually, my favorite dish was the least fussy, most straightforward menu option. Grilled Jamaican pork chops are wonderful, thick and tender, with just a hint of jerk seasoning. These chops have a satisfying, bone-gnawing quality. Only the skewers of shrimp and scallops didn't perform as well as they might have. At $16, it's the most expensive entree, but four scallops and five medium shrimp won't fill too many bellies. And the marinade of orange juice, garlic, brown sugar and Pick-a-Peppa sauce totaled less than the sum of its parts. After each bite, the dish seemed a little less intriguing, and a little more bizarre. The desserts come from elsewhere, and are hit-and-miss. The Kahla fudge cake is way too dry. The lovely banana rum cake, though, tastes of swaying palms, white-sand beaches and gently rolling waves. Looking for something new, but not too new? Banana Bay cooks up an appealing, unthreatening taste of the islands. If you're tired of sailing out for Mexican, Chinese or Italian, consider dropping your anchor here.

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