CHIMI SWEEP

Lily's Cafe, 6706 North 58th Drive, Glendale, 937-7757. Hours: Lunch, Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Breakfast and Lunch, Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Wednesday through Saturday, 4:30 to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 4:30 to 7 p.m.

When I get the itch for Mexican food, how do I decide where to scratch it? To grab my business, a south-of-the-border restaurant has to pass one of two tests: Either the food has to be better than ordinary--better burros, better tamales, better tacos. Or the food has to be out of the ordinary--something besides burros, tamales and tacos. Among the first group are solid establishments like El Bravo, Guedo's Taco Shop and Rosa's Mexican Grill, which whip up first-rate versions of traditional standards. Among the second group, I'm drawn to Such Is Life and its Yucat n cuisine and San Carlos Bay's Mexican seafood. Each list has now gotten a bit longer. I've found a couple of places in the northwest Valley that put a little kick into the Mexican-food experience. Lily's Cafe, tucked away within the Bermuda Triangle of Grand Avenue, 59th Avenue and Ocotillo Road, is about as easy to find as the Lost Dutchman mine, at least for a bumbling first-timer like me. But obviously the location on North 58th Drive isn't that much of a handicap--this Glendale landmark has been drawing generations of neighborhood customers since 1949. The lure? High-quality, high-value dishes, served in a warm, friendly setting. The place exudes homey, old-fashioned Mexican-cafe character, something most Valley Mexican joints can't quite manage to duplicate. That means a jukebox playing 200 country and Mexican hits. It means red-vinyl booths, dark wood paneling and Mexican "tile" linoleum. And it means a wall full of tourist market bric-a-brac--an Aztec ceramic disk, a bullfighter plaque and colorful paintings.

It also means a friendly word from the mom-and-pop proprietors, crowds of regulars greeted by servers who've been there forever and bustling help who do the bus chores with rare efficiency and ‚lan. From the moment you step inside, Lily's Cafe makes you instantly comfortable. So does the limited menu. It offers familiar Sonoran favorites, in … la carte and combination-plate form, that you can get anywhere. Except elsewhere, they're generally not this good. You might not think so from the chips, which have that store-bought look. But there's no mistaking the homemade bite of the hot and chunky jalape¤o salsa. With just a little prodding, it's easy to get the owners talking about their food. They're proud of it. "Look, no microwaves," they note, pointing back into the tiny kitchen. "We use good, quality ingredients. And we cook dishes up fresh several times during the day. When you order an enchilada here," they boast, "it hasn't been sitting around all day waiting for you to ask for it."

I'm convinced. It's difficult to judge by the cheese-crisp munchie, an enormous tortilla drenched with cheese, since it's hardly a test of a Mexican kitchen. But once you get into the main dishes, the freshness and quality of the fare are striking. Zero in on the world-class chimichanga, a model of perfection. As veteran Mexican foodies know, there are far too many chimichangas in this town that sink to your stomach like an oily anvil. Not this one. It's almost delicate. A light, flaky, grease-free, deep-fried crust surrounds hunks of tender beef. Cheese, guacamole, sour cream and greenery are spread across the top. It's obvious that someone in the kitchen isn't content just to go through the chimichanga motions. Seafood enchiladas, an occasional special, show the same level of commitment. Two of these beauties come filled with minced fish, draped with cheese, and topped with four shrimp. Throw in some rice and beans that actually have some taste and you have a platter that makes the $5.60 tag seem like a happy misprint. Lily's Cafe doesn't do pork, and doesn't feature chicken. The daily meat of choice here is beef, and it's done right. That means 1) you don't need the jaws of a wolf to chew it, and 2) you don't have to worry about finding unappetizing chunks of gristle. The beef is a star attraction in the bowl of red chili. This hearty beanless stew should satisfy any urges for animal protein. But the beef has to share top billing with the thick, robust red chile sauce that adds a spicy zip to the proceedings. The tamale and burro also bring out beefy highlights. It's pretty easy to know when you've gotten yesterday's tamale--the corn gets dry and the interior gets gummy. You won't have those problems with this moist, fresh model. The hefty burro is equally effective. And the chile rellenos, which come out of the kitchen after 4:30 p.m., avoid the soggy pitfalls that often turn this dish into a gloppy mess. Lily's relleno is mild, cheesy and eggy. During one of my anonymous chats with the proprietors, the conversation turned to the subject of cleanliness, a topic many restaurant owners like to dodge. But I was escorted behind the cash register, where the latest health-department rating was posted. Lily's score: 100. "You know," the wife complained, "a few months ago, a television station did a report on dirty restaurants. We called them and told them about our 100, but they weren't interested. The media doesn't want to hear good news." Well, maybe. But Mexican-food fans certainly do. So here it is: On just about any level--food, atmosphere, service, price, cleanliness--Lily's Cafe is good news.

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