MOUTH BY SOUTHWEST

Coyote Grill, 3202 East Greenway Road, Phoenix, 404-8966. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Years ago, as a Peace Corps volunteer, I spent a few days in a dirt-poor, mud-hut African village--no electricity, no plumbing, no nothing. Just a few miles away, though, believe it or not, was a bustling Club Med filled with frolicking European vacationers. Needless to say, attracting natives wasn't a Club Med marketing priority--after all, it didn't take a genius to see that the local demographics were less than promising. I make the same connection when I think about the Valley's Southwestern restaurants. Think of the big guns: Arizona Kitchen, Cafe Terra Cotta, Top of the Rock, Vincent's, Pi€on Grill. For many of us natives, the $75-to-$100-per-couple tag makes a visit almost as much of a splurge as a Club Med week is for a Senegalese villager. No doubt these restaurants' well-off guests are in for a good time. The chefs use the finest regional ingredients in the most imaginative ways: corn risottos, smoked salmon quesadillas, wild-boar chilis with Anasazi beans, prickly-pear sorbets, tequila cheesecakes.

But can we live in the Southwest and afford to eat it, too? Can Southwestern fare be palatable and reasonably priced at the same time? My scouting expedition to two new Southwestern grills suggests that the answers are yes, and sort of.

When it comes to interior design, Coyote Grill's proprietors evidently share the previous restaurant tenant's decorating taste. The place still looks like the defunct Tia Maria's Coyote Cantina. It sports the same gleaming, Mexican-tile floor, the same wood-beamed ceiling and the same tropical-colored oilcloth tablecloths. It's easy on the eyes, almost festive. And so, to my unexpected delight, is the food. I was completely unprepared for the kind of quality I encountered here. And the fact that most entrees fell in the $9-to-$12 range only added to my gratification. An excellent, potent prickly-pear margarita may have softened me up somewhat, but not enough to make me lose all my critical faculties. The wonderfully moist and steaming homemade cheese and jalape€o corn bread was as good as any I've had. In fact, if duty hadn't called, I'd have been perfectly happy to spend the evening munching corn bread and sipping margaritas.

But then I'd have missed some outstanding starters. In particular, the soups were a surprising thrill. A rich, luscious cream of cilantro packing a sharp chile bite came with four floating grilled mussels. This is the kind of soup you'd expect from a top Valley Southwestern kitchen. Just as compelling was the fragrant corn chowder, inventively studded with jalape€o hush puppies. Watch out, though: Even a professional eater like me found these soups incredibly filling.

Chicken strips are a lighter way to get the appetite juices roiling. These weren't the usual greasy and fried fast-food look-alikes, poured frozen from a 25-pound bag. They were hunks of lightly battered, white-meat chicken, topped with peppered jack cheese and avocado salsa. The indifferent fried calamari and lackluster whitefish ceviche, however, couldn't begin to compete with the soups or the chicken. The main dishes, swirling with Southwestern flavors, are a winning combination of value, heft and taste. If done right, a simple grilled salmon doesn't need much adornment. All you really need is a fresh fillet and a chef who knows how to cook it. Coyote Grill's does. This slab came well-prepared, moist and flaky, accompanied by a perky curried applesauce.

Grilled quail is about as adventurous as the kitchen gets. Experience has taught me that there are lots of puny, overpriced birds in Valley restaurants. Not here. Doused in a zippy lime marinade, this quail was an exceptionally meaty $11.95 bargain, with gnaw-to-the-bone quality. Tasty sides of mashed potatoes and red cabbage were pleasing accompaniments. South-of-the-border-style dishes also exhibited a flair that convinced me this kitchen isn't content just to go through the motions. Take the massive smoked chicken and prawn burrito. An analysis of the interior revealed none of the awful, teeny-tiny shrimp I feared might be lurking inside. Instead, I discovered whole crustaceans too big to swallow in one bite. I also found lots of good-size chunks of smoked chicken. And it all came covered with sour cream, salsa and cheese, nestled in first-rate whole black beans and rice. If you order this platter, conserve your waitress's energy and ask for a take-home container at the same time. Even an old Tex-Mex standby like fajitas shows power. The version here, big enough for two people to share (especially once they've filled up on corn bread and appetizers), features mounds of sizzling smoked shredded chicken, onions and peppers, with all the usual fixings.

There are lots of ways I get a quick fix on a restaurant. One is by the breadbasket. Another is by the dinner salad. (Coyote Grill doesn't have one.) A third is by dessert. Invariably, places that rely on outside suppliers aren't serious about the rest of their fare, either.

Coyote Grill whips up its own desserts. A taco shell filled with kiwi and strawberries in a puddle of cräme anglaise was stylishly done. So was the smooth and creamy flan.

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