BAHIA KINO

Bahia Kino is hardly a destination spot for diners seeking romance, elegance or cooking-school gastronomy. But adventurous couples looking for well-prepared ethnic seafood and change back from a twenty will find that Bahia Kino's neon lights are bright on Broadway. Cajun Connection Cafe, 7101 East Thunderbird, Scottsdale, 948-4545. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.

"People," sang out a waitress to the kitchen crew, as we entered the Cajun Connection at 7 o'clock on a recent Saturday night. We were the evening's first customers, and even two hours later, only two other tables and three barstools were occupied. The place sports the usual Mardi Gras look: gimcracks and gewgaws from New Orleans' annual bacchanalia and an eclectic collection of framed posters. But we weren't here to get vicarious thrills from Louisiana mementos. We came to feast on the region's famed seafood--oysters, shrimp, catfish, crayfish--prepared in that distinctive Cajun style. I believe that this fare is American regional cuisine at its finest--rich, almost elegant in a homespun way and bursting with flavor. But Cajun Connection never quite masters the possibilities. It's generally the little things that keep the food from soaring. The oyster brochette starter features battered, fried critters wrapped with bacon. Sounds like a wonderful combination, we thought. But undercooked, fatty bacon made chewing unpleasant, and swallowing a chore. Fortunately, when we turned to land-based appetizers, our mood improved. The crunchy, homemade onion rings, made from sweet red onions, turned out to be a superior appetizer option. The line between "mild" and "bland" is hard to pinpoint with certainty. But Cajun Connection's seafood seems to have stepped over it. It's not that the main dishes fail to give diners some degree of pleasure--they do. But none really sparkles, either. Everything seemed to need a little more oomph. Take the shrimp Lafayette, for example. The four shrimp accompanying the plateful of fettuccine come so pounded and flattened that they're thin enough to slide under a door. And once they're breaded and fried, the shrimp flavor and texture virtually disappear. This is not the kind of preparation that gave Gulf shrimp its reputation. The tasty, garlic brown roux tossed over the noodles couldn't pick up all the slack. Crayfish ‚touff‚e, a bayou specialty, features succulent Louisiana freshwater crustaceans bathed in a light roux. There have been times when I've had this dish and actually contemplated a move to the state's mosquito- and alligator-infested swamps. This, however, wasn't one of them. Crayfish ‚touff‚e can be too luscious to come out of the kitchen merely routinely good. Blackened catfish, a moist slab seared with Cajun spices, had a bit more of the regional kick that we had been searching for. But while the catfish is certainly worth finishing, it's not the sort of dish that you're likely to remember an hour later. And that quality seems to be Cajun Connection's principal deficiency: Nothing's memorable. Cajun staples like the cornmeal-battered oyster po-boy are pleasing enough, but hardly worth a special trip. Same with other Cajun highlights. The gumbo is thin, and I couldn't spot any of the promised chicken or sausage. Red beans and rice had no peppery punch. Neither did the jambalaya. Yet, strangely enough, the homemade desserts are absolutely first-rate. These are worth an excursion. Cheesecake is scrumptious, a rich, creamy treat. Thick bread pudding is soaked with enough whiskey to require an ID check. The warm carrot cake is moist, without the cloying sweetness that ruins most versions. And the chocolate amaretto mousse will make you understand why the English language needs a word like "chocoholic." Why is it that with the main dishes before us, we picked, nibbled and talked, while once the sweets were set down, we enthusiastically attacked in silence? When Cajun Connection comes up with the answer, we'll be back. @7col:Bahia Kino: Small ceviche $4.00 Whole fish in garlic sauce 8.95 Shrimp endiablado

7.85 Seven seas stew 7.85 Cajun Connection Cafe: Oyster brochette $6.50 Blackened catfish 11.95 Crayfish ‚touff‚e 13.95 Bread pudding 2.95

JOE ARPAIO'S TENT CITY... v1-20-94

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