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Jazelle's Restaurant, 3422 West Glendale Avenue, Phoenix, 841-4776. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
The first week of January is like a seven-day morning after. Pants are tight, wallets are thin, holiday hopes are behind us. And by the time the company deducts from that Christmas bonus for taxes, social security and health benefits, you're looking at maybe four figures, two of them to the right of the decimal point. So at this time of year, I take to heart Thoreau's injunction to "Simplify, simplify." I don't want anything fancy on my plate. And I want a menu with main dishes that come with change from a ten. Where does the search for cheap and basic lead? In this town, it means a trip to the west side. Luckily, I stumbled onto two places that can reliably fill you up without putting you over your credit-card limits. The first is Jazelle's Restaurant, which leads a double life. If you sneak a look while whizzing past it on West Glendale Avenue, the restaurant gives every impression of being a typical American coffee shop. If you stick your head in, that impression is reinforced--orange-vinyl booths, a coffee counter and a menu heavy with burgers, salads and sandwiches. But as Gilbert and Sullivan once noted, things are seldom what they seem. The tip-off is a room off to the left, with a mysterious "Greek-Italian section" sign over the entrance. At first, I thought this might be part of some bizarre customer-ethnicity test. The sign's meaning, however, is much more benign. Enter here and you'll be handed a separate menu offering southern European specialties prepared by Jazelle's Turkish proprietors.
These folks obviously don't believe in throwing money away on decor. If it weren't for the hanging artificial plants, this bare-bones room would have no charm at all. But when meals go for $6 to $9, you can't expect a place to look like the dining hall at Versailles. For distraction, we got to watch one of the owners' kids, working from a reference book, struggling unsuccessfully to properly fold linen napkins. Like the decor, the appetizer list is not much to look at--shrimp cocktail, chicken wings, fried mozzarella. And when we tried to order the Greek salad as a starter, the waitress shook her head. "It's the same as the salad that comes with dinner," she explained, "except it has feta cheese." The greenery, with or without feta, is thoroughly unremarkable. Your best pre-entree munching option: filling up on the excellent breadsticks, coated with garlic, that come with the meal.
Almost all of the main dishes exhibit a tasty Mediterranean flair. The chicken spanakopita plate is outstanding, featuring a big wedge of phyllo dough stuffed with chunks of white meat, chopped spinach, egg and cheese. It's all baked, and served with rice and freshly saut‚ed vegetables: green pepper, broccoli, mushrooms and squash. This is a platter I'd come back for. Jazelle's also does one of my favorite Greek specialties, moussaka, just right. It's alternating layers of saut‚ed eggplant and lightly seasoned ground beef and lamb, topped with a cheesy white sauce. And at $5.95, you can't beat the price. Chicken with artichokes is the kind of dish I'd expect to encounter at a Greek-owned diner in Brooklyn, not in a west Phoenix coffee shop. It's a hearty plate, laden with chicken breast, artichoke hearts, dried tomatoes and walnuts, accompanied by fettuccine and coated with a heavy, white-wine cream sauce. It's hard to believe even a Greek could have the energy to dance and throw plates after polishing this off.
Garithes yiouvesti also displays a vibrant touch. Jazelle's takes half a dozen shrimp and tosses them with fresh tomatoes, garlic and feta cheese, and drapes it all over a mound of rice. It's simple and effective. Oddly enough, the one Greek platter that never should have been let past customs is the inaptly trumpeted house special. It consists of gristly, tooth-resistant chunks of lamb combined with tough slabs of dried apricots. This dish will have your jaws working overtime, and for no particularly compelling reason. I'd rename or rework this platter quickly--there's nothing special about it.
On the other hand, the two Italian entrees I sampled could hold their own against most Phoenix competition. The lasagna is first-rate, a hefty wedge distinguished by lots of cheese, a heavy dose of Italian spices and a full-bodied meat sauce. But think twice about ordering this if you've got a big evening planned. With a cavalier disregard for your postdinner social life, the kitchen tosses in a fistful of whole garlic cloves. Stromboli is also a crowd-pleaser, dough wrapped around a big portion of chicken, spinach, mushrooms and cheese, then baked. Dessert is one of the glories of Greek and Italian cuisine, but Jazelle's evidently thinks customers prefer coffee-shop apple pie to, say, a galaktoboureko or sfogliatella. Still, the sole ethnic effort, an oversize baklava, is as good as I've had recently. Lots of nuts and honey, and a splash of rose water, make it work.
Valley foodies already know to head west of Central for cheap, no-frills ethnic treats. I'd add the unlikely looking Jazelle's to the list of destinations.