COCINA GAMBOLING

Zona Rosa, Crown Sterling Suites, 2630 East Camelback, Phoenix, 954-9258. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The line separating highbrow from lowbrow is a lot less rigid than we think.
Take Shakespeare. In Elizabethan England and 19th-century America, his plays were popular entertainments, the sitcoms and docudramas of the day. The idea that you have to be "cultured" to sit through Othello is a very modern one. Take jazz. What is now hailed as an original American achievement, worthy of scholarly study, was once dismissed as the barbaric bleatings of musically primitive African Americans. Several other vibrant cultural expressions have passed back and forth between the realms of lowbrow amusement and Serious Art. It's hard to believe, but the masses of the past used to wait as breathlessly for a new Puccini opera or Dickens novel as today's masses anticipate a new Seinfeld episode.

Over the past few years, the line dividing highbrow and lowbrow cuisine has also gotten a lot fuzzier. What used to be undeniably plebeian--ethnic fare from peasant-riddled Third World countries--is taken by more and more diners as Serious Food. These days, an imaginative rice-and-beans dish can take a chef a lot further than a velvety b‚chamel sauce.

Location Info

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El Gran Taco

722 W. Hatcher Road
Phoenix, AZ 85021-3132

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: North Phoenix

Mexican food is the kind of ethnic fare that can move effortlessly between highbrow and lowbrow gastronomy. Like Shakespeare, it can be both earthy and refined. Like jazz, it can be hot and cool. Which way is best?

Two new Mexican restaurants furnish a few clues. El Gran Taco thrives because it knows just who its customers are, and dishes out high-quality servings of the food they want. Zona Rosa, meanwhile, is still scratching its head over which brow to aim for.

Zona Rosa is the newest offspring of Big 4 Restaurants, Inc., the local company that has spawned such successful, high-concept dining spots as Oscar Taylor, Steamers and Bssghetti.

In this instance, though, the concept doesn't seem to have been thoroughly thought out. Located in the lobby of the Crown Sterling Suites hotel, Zona Rosa wants, on the one hand, to serve the usual Sonoran snoozers to Midwestern sales reps on Southwestern business trips; on the other hand, it hopes to draw locals with marginally more adventurous fare.

I'm no expert on the dining preferences of on-the-road businesspeople. But I can't imagine Valley dwellers traveling to this hotel restaurant just for enchiladas and burritos. And I can't see them making the trip for specialties that have so little vitality, either. One problem is the look. Zona Rosa is designed like a hotel Mexican restaurant. Despite the warm, red colors, it's a bit cold. Look for lots of clay vessels, a wallful of masks, and bamboo screens on the ceiling. Diners peer out on the hotel pool or lobby. There's no festive air, no sense of intimacy or romance. The enormous booths and tables, however, do seem like perfect spots to unfold spreadsheets.

A basket with a variety of warm, crunchy chips--corn, blue corn and yucca--is good enough to take your mind off business. So is the fresh blue-corn roll. The three dips alongside, though, had almost no flavor, except for the salt in the tomatillo salsa. It's hard, after plowing through the chips, to think anyone would pant to order a plateful of nachos or taquitos as an appetizer. The green-chile-and-cheese-crisp alternative certainly isn't very exciting, either, even for Midwestern hotel guests. It's a crisp flour tortilla, topped with gobs of cheese and a few chile strips. Much more alluring are spinach and mushroom empanadas, four small masa turnovers coated with a luscious poblano chile cream sauce. Why couldn't the rest of the meal have sported the same kind of flair? Instead, a play-it-safe strategy marked the main dishes. Where we lusted for boldness, the kitchen opted for caution. It's true that where there's no risk, there's little chance for failure. So transient hotel diners won't be upset. But no great success can be achieved without some chance-taking. The entrees here simply never grab your lapels and demand your attention. The carne asada … la Tampique¤a is really an upscale version of beef fajitas. And the strips of fragrantly marinated tenderloin are first-rate, juicy and butter-soft. Rice, whole white beans and grilled vegetables also get good marks. I couldn't figure out, though, why a dreary cheese enchilada comes hitched to this platter. But who is going to get lathered up over a Mexican meat, bean and rice plate that costs $16, especially when there are better Valley options? For instance, over at La Hacienda, you can get a veal shank braised with tomatoes, garlic and chiles for the same price.

The chicken-and-shrimp combo was timidly prepared. At first I thought I was in for a treat, since the menu promised to deliver the pair in peanut sauce, one of my culinary weaknesses. But instead of a robust peanut punch, this dish delivered only a shellful of one-dimensional flavor. The only lapels I wanted to grab were the chef's, to beg her to kick this high-potential platter into a higher gear.

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