COCINA GAMBOLING

The halibut Veracruz should have been tossed back. This mealy fish had clearly seen better days, and not all that recently. Too bad the capers, olives, onions and peppers couldn't have escorted something worthier of their company.

Desserts are more tempting to contemplate than devour. Papaya mango cheesecake has too much sugar and not enough fruity or cheesy highlights. Chocolate flan is a shimmying, oddly flavored confection that grew less appealing with each bite. Too refined for culinary lowbrows and too pallid for highbrow gastronomes, Zona Rosa comes off as comfortably, unthreateningly middlebrow. If that's your taste, then this is your place.

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El Gran Taco

722 W. Hatcher Road
Phoenix, AZ 85021-3132

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: North Phoenix

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El Gran Taco, 8929 North Central, Phoenix, 997-9290. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

El Gran Taco, by contrast, is unashamedly lowbrow. A small, Mexican seafood and taco stand surrounded by Sunnyslope auto-body shops, it dispenses with such superfluities as fluent English help, metal cutlery and high-concept decor. Instead, it concentrates on down-home favorites, at prices that keep the place busy with neighborhood Mexican workers eager for a taste of home. There's not much to gaze upon at this small, nine-month-old place, unless you enjoy Spanish-language television. Done up in Mexico's red, white and green colors, El Gran Taco has lined the walls with mirrors, shells and a flag of that country. A spanking-new CD jukebox pounds out south-of-the-border hits at Concorde-level decibels. But while your eyes and ears won't be feasting, your taste buds will be massaged with some excellent home cooking. It will help, though, to speak a bit of Spanish. That's because the English side of the menu doesn't include all the specialties offered on the Spanish side. If your idea of Mexican cuisine includes brains, head, tongue and tripe, consult a dictionary before your visit.

When I asked the affable owner why he didn't translate these delicacies into English, he shrugged and said he "didn't want to scare people away." He shouldn't have to worry. The other items on the menu will keep him knee-deep in customers. Take, for example, the luscious marinated pork. Like everything else, you can order it in a taco, in a torta (a Mexican sandwich) or in a burrito. In any setting, it's absolutely irresistible. A glance behind the counter showed me why. Spinning on a gyro-type rotisserie are layered slabs of meltingly tender, fragrantly spiced meat. Once a slab is stuffed into a burrito and coated with lightly seasoned beans, it's magic. It's been a while since I held anything this good in my hands for $2.50. Other Sonoran staples make up in quality what they lack in novelty. The grilled beef taco features a mound of beef, onions and cilantro on two small corn tortillas. It won't be served on Limoges china, but you'll only have to cough up $1--a more than reasonable trade-off. Grilled chicken, meanwhile, goes well on the fresh Mexican roll used for the torta. Despite its name, El Gran Taco is mostly an outlet for Mexican seafood. As Valley fish fans know, seafood, Mexican or not, is never cheap. But if there's better Mexican seafood in the Valley, it's not cheaper; if it's cheaper, it's not better. The ceviche is packed with enough raw seafood to induce Shamu to jump through a hoop. Even better is a terrific cocktail of shrimp and octopus, swimming in a big, ice-cream-sundae-type glass. What makes this treat so remarkable is the liquid it floats in: a mouth-wateringly seasoned tomato broth tinged with lemon and crowded with onion, cilantro and chunks of cucumber. If you prefer your seafood cooked, don't despair. The shrimp plate delivered five expertly grilled, butterflied crustaceans, accompanied by serviceable rice, beans and salad.

More adventurous souls shouldn't pass up the seven seas stew, an occasional special. It comes in the kind of big bowl that we use at home as a serving vessel for four. Inside are squid, octopus, clams, scallops, shrimp, fish and lots of crab. The broth is scented with a variety of veggies: green pepper, squash, carrots, onions and celery.

And you can wash everything down with an orchata, a nifty, rice-based drink perfumed with vanilla, cinnamon and sugar.

El Gran Taco aims squarely at folks whose tastes for no-frills Mexican food are more developed than their bank accounts. Cheap, nonconcept, lowbrow, nothing-fancy fare? You bet. And I'm ready for seconds.

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