HEALTH'S KITCHEN

Flying Crane, 730 East Brown, Mesa, 835-6073. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 8:30 p.m. For a guy who used to believe that onion rings, jelly doughnuts, pizza and corned beef made up the four major food groups, I've come a long way. Thoroughly enlightened, I'm now qualified to give guided tours around the nutritional pyramid. If people can swallow it, I can recite the calorie and fat-gram count. I can do a half-hour on the virtues of potassium. I can whip crowds into a glassy-eyed stupor lecturing on "Fiber: Friend or Foe?" And good pals have been known to suddenly remember pressing dental appointments in Gila Bend once I start pontificating on the evils of reckless snacking.

But what I say and what I eat are two different things, and I still harbor some suspicions about restaurants whose fare explicitly promises to be "good for you." In my experience, "good for you" is a code phrase for "you won't like it."

I'm not interested in dishes designed to make my arteries wider, my stomach smaller or my heart more efficient. Why? Because even Joe Arpaio couldn't get away with serving Tent City inmates a nutritionally driven menu. Let's face it: Thinking about low-fat, cholesterol-free, nutrient-dense, low-calorie, high-fiber restaurant meals won't get anyone's belly gurgling with anticipation. Now you understand why the prospect of fueling up at Flying Crane ("Light and Healthy Cuisine") and Healthy Heart ("Low Fat-Low Cholesterol Food Preparation"), two East Valley good-for-you spots, filled me with the same feeling of doom I used to get when I'd go out on a blind date with a girl my mother described as having "a good personality."

So imagine my shock when I opened the door into Flying Crane. I couldn't have been more stunned if one of those blind dates had turned out to look like Cindy Crawford. The proprietors have transformed an ugly-duckling strip mall location into a serene oasis of Asian cuisine and culture. Objets d'art--graceful metal cranes, elegant, blue-and-white porcelain pots, hand-painted Chinese vases and ornately decorated screens--fill the airy, double-size storefront. Huge photo murals of cascading waterfalls line the walls. The radio is tuned to the classical-music station. Even folks waiting for to-go orders are looked after. The mom-and-pop owners--she's Japanese, he's Chinese--have a tableful of current issues of readable magazines to help pass the time. This attention to detail spills over into the food. Everything is reasonably priced, fresh and made to order. And, mirabile dictu, delicious. Despite the stylish surroundings, you do your ordering at the counter. There's no printed menu--the offerings are listed on the wall. If the place isn't too busy, someone will bring your meal over when it's ready. Otherwise, they'll call you over to pick up your tray.

And there won't be any scowls after you've tasted what's on it. Flying Crane Soup Noodle makes a hearty meal-in-a-bowl for one, or a good way for two people to get started. The soup is well-stocked with noodles, shrimp and veggies, and the broth sports a ginger bite that brings it to life. The main dishes come either as combos or, for about $1.50 more, platters. Both offer white or brown rice, but the platters also furnish a small taste of several appetizers that can otherwise be ordered in larger portions … la carte. Be a sport and spring for the platters. They're worth it. Both the chicken puffs and shrimp toast are fresh and crispy. And the small cup of cucumber salad, crunchy with cabbage, carrots and chile, is absolutely scrumptious, good enough to order on its own. Health-food devotees tend to be fond of chicken, and Flying Crane knows how to give you the bird. That's because it uses only moist, white-meat chicken breast, and none of those chunky pellets or shredded strips that afflict other Asian restaurants. Eggplant velvet, for instance, features braised eggplant stir-fried with chicken in a mild brown sauce. More hard-hitting is Cantonese tomato velvet, a spicy blend of chicken, green pepper, tomato wedges and scallions in a fragrant bean sauce. But my favorite pullet surprise is chicken cutlet. It's Flying Crane's take on chicken katsu, a Japanese dish. Chicken breast is delicately breaded and fried, and cut into strips. It's served over rice with onions, mushrooms and bok choy, moistened by a lip-smacking, slightly sweet teriyaki glaze.

At $11.95, the Singapore Har Kew platter is the most expensive menu option. But look at what you get: seven big, quality prawns, in a zippy tomato sauce. A daily special of stir-fried sole with snow peas and water chestnuts is another aquatic delight--I could feel good health coursing through my veins. Flying Crane steak should mollify carnivores who get dragged here against their will. They'll enjoy lots of tender strips of beef perked up with some shiitake mushrooms. One cavil. Flying Crane doesn't stint on the meat, fish or chicken in its dishes. But the kitchen could be more generous with the rice. I found myself pecking for every last grain. You can avoid the rice hunt by opting for velvet lo mein, a plate loaded with fresh, thin noodles, white-meat chicken and Chinese vegetables. Then, finish up with a pot of steaming tea. By that time, both your body and your wallet should be in pretty good shape. Healthy Heart, 6340 South Rural, Tempe, 831-6464. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Under new ownership, Healthy Heart is a little more into hard-core health than Flying Crane. You won't find chicken cutlet here. Nothing is fried--"All meats steamed, braised, or roasted," says the menu. The soups? They're "defatted before final preparation." Ingredients? "All food prepared with non-fat or low-fat, non-cholesterol or low-cholesterol ingredients." And, naturally, there's a "commercial reverse osmosis" system that filters water for cooking and drinking. Healthy Heart is less heavily into aesthetics than Flying Crane, too. Don't look for objets d'art in this basic, no-frills strip mall storefront. Tied-back, white cloth curtains provide the only homey touch. No dinnerware, either. It's strictly plastic cutlery, plastic cups, plastic plates. In fact, one evening, having apparently run out of plastic plates, the restaurant served two of our main dishes in a Styrofoam container, ripped in half. The soups make up for the lack of elegance. Southwestern vegetable tastes like somebody's been stirring it up in a big kettle for several hours. And the gazpacho is hands-down the single best menu item. It's fashioned from tomato juice and stewed tomatoes, and studded with cucumbers and celery. My kid, whose initial reaction had been "Ugh," changed her tune after one spoonful, demanding I order a large bowl just for her. She's obviously inherited her father's refined palate. Healthy Heart has a Hindulike aversion to beef--and all other red meat. With one exception (a lean pork medallion), if you want animal protein, it's going to come in the form of ground turkey or boneless, skinless chicken breast. That doesn't work too successfully in the rigatoni-with-turkey-meatballs entree. Yes, ground turkey has fewer calories and less fat than ground beef. Unfortunately, it's got a great deal less taste, too. For this dish to work, the marinara sauce has to compensate for the bland fowl. Healthy Heart's doesn't. Whole-wheat garlic toast, lined with canola margarine, furnished what aid it could. Baked stuffed peppers don't sport much more oomph. It's one of those typical I-eat-it-because-it's-good-for-me platters, and it reminded me of a conversation I overheard a few years ago at Gentle Strength, the quintessential Valley good-for-you eating place.

A regular was extolling the nutritional virtues of a bean and rice dish to a recent convert. "But how does it taste?" asked the convert. "It doesn't taste too good," the regular admitted, "but I eat it all the time."

Healthy Heart's stuffed peppers merit that same dubious endorsement. A snoozy mix of ground turkey, brown rice and breadcrumbs sits lifelessly on a small square of pepper. If this dish came in pill form, it would be a sedative. Significantly peppier is chicken breast brushed with mustard and herbs, served over a curry-tinged stew of cubed potatoes, sliced carrots and peas. I'd like this platter even if I weren't aware of its healthful qualities. Nothing short of the most scrupulous sense of professional obligation could ever induce me to order a dish described as "ground turkey stew over toasted oat bran." And to be completely candid, I technically didn't order it. I made my wife get it. I was glad I did, even though it looked even scarier than the description--gray shreds of meat flecked with oat bran, sitting on top of a slice of white bread. Actually, it didn't taste bad at all, but I can't imagine anyone racing to Tempe to check it out. Ordering sweets in good-for-you restaurants is a no-win situation. If good nutrition isn't compromised, dessert's bound to taste awful. And if nutrition is compromised, it still won't be compromised enough to give you enough taste bang for your calorie buck. Pass up Healthy Heart's low-fat cheesecake and peanut butter bars, and fill in the appetite cracks with the fruit cup instead. Both Flying Crane and Healthy Heart aim at a clearly defined market segment, the healthy-eating crowd. But, unlike Flying Crane, Healthy Heart is just not able to transcend it.

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