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La Guadalupana, 2243 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 254-5114. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought that mankind continually struggled with two conflicting impulses. On the one hand, he said, we yearn for adventure and risk, the rush of excitement that's often recalled in later years as "feeling alive." On the other hand, we also crave comfort and security, because we know the world's a dangerous place and bad things can happen at any time.
Nietzsche was a lot more sympathetic to the risk-takers, people willing to go beyond the limiting conventions of bourgeois life and Christian morality. We cheated ourselves, he believed, by playing it safe.
2243 N 16th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85006-1823
Region: Central Phoenix
The two conflicting impulses Nietzsche saw in man are also apparent in restaurants. The timid masses continue to settle for safe gringo fare, drained of risk and taste, at places like B.F.I.T. (The initials stand, laughably, for Best Fajitas in Town.)
The more adventurous types love the real ethnic gems, the kind of places where the fearful, take-no-chances McMiddle classes wouldn't think of setting foot.
If Nietzsche were ever reincarnated as a Valley restaurant reviewer, he'd probably scour the town looking for great ethnic joints. Every once in a great while, he might get lucky and stumble on one, like the south-of-the-border La Guadalupana. Here, he could become a gastronomic �bermensch, reveling in a meal fit for the gods.
La Guadalupana certainly doesn't look like it's housing any �bermenschen. The restaurant occupies an unprepossessing cottage, with battered woodwork and grim, boarded-up doors at what once was the 16th Street entrance. Two rainbow-hued serapes and red, white and green decorations hanging from the ceiling inject a note of gaiety and color. So does the Spanish-language jukebox, set at Concorde-level decibels. The menu is bilingual, Spanish on one side, English on the other. Of course, when English speakers see something called "Caldo Tlalpe¤o" translated as "Tlalpe¤o Soup" on the other, it won't do them much good. Sweet, friendly servers, some with limited English, do what they can to guide linguistically challenged patrons through the menu. La Guadalupana serves Mexican and Salvadoran fare. It's all cheap--nothing over eight bucks. And most of it is spectacularly good. The small Salvadoran list--seven dishes--isn't as extensive as Eliana's full Salvadoran menu. But the quality is right up there. Pupusas are marvelous, distinctive corn masa patties stuffed with cheese and a sprinkling of pork rinds. If you require a larger dose of pork rinds, you can get your Recommended Annual Allowance by ordering the yuca con chicharon. It's a big plateful of crunchy, salty, fried rinds, accompanied by thick-cut, deep-fried yuca, a potatolike tuber also known as cassava or manioc. If you're getting a physical tomorrow, this is not the platter you should be eating tonight.
The Salvadoran corn tamales are also unusually tasty, sweet, dense and fresh. Try them with an order of fried plantains, moistened with pur‚ed beans and sour cream. The Mexican fare is outstanding. Forget the calendar and order the caldo Tlalpe¤o. It's one of the best soups I've had in the Valley, thick with shredded chicken, squash, potatoes, carrots, avocado and lots of deep-red chipotle, smoked jalape¤o peppers. This broth packs a fiery wallop, which can be marginally tempered by a squeeze of lemon. If the chile heat does get you sweating like a snowbird in August, try focusing your mind on the incredibly cheap three-dollar tag the proprietors charge for this meal-in-a-bowl. That should help cool you off.
If you want something more conventionally refreshing, consider the shrimp cocktail. You get a bucketful of firm shrimp in a soothing tomato liquid, laced with onions, cilantro and avocado.
What really turned my head here was the quesadilla de huitlacoche. In Mayan, huitlacoche means "food of the gods." Americans, less sensitive to its culinary possibilities, call it "corn smut." South of the border, it's a delicacy. In the States, I've run across huitlacoche in a fancy Southwestern restaurant in New York, and here in town at La Hacienda, the gourmet Mexican restaurant at the Scottsdale Princess Resort. Nietzschean risk-takers will be rewarded by its mild, sublime fungal flavor. Others may not.
Almost as interesting, and at least as filling, are the tortas, thick sandwiches on Mexican rolls. The Cuban version (there are seven other models) comes jammed with ham, sliced pork leg, Mexican cheese and huge chunks of avocado. Once you down this baby, old favorites like ham and cheese or a quarter-pounder are going to look pretty tame. Even the usual suspects, like burritos and tacos, are exceptional. That's because you can stuff them with ingredients like carne asada, tender grilled beef and roasted pork glazed with red chile. (For real Nietzscheans, the menu offers lengua and cabeza--that's tongue and head--as well.) Mole enchiladas are also wonderful, cheese-stuffed tortillas coated with an enchanting mole sauce redolent with smoked chiles.
La Guadalupana dishes out several hearty main dishes. The filete de pescado, fried fish fillet, brings an enormous slab of freshly battered cod. The roasted half-chicken is beautifully moist inside, crispy crunchy outside, and served with rice, cheese-sprinkled beans, sliced tomatoes and jalape¤os. When you factor in the cost, $5.50, you see it hardly pays to eat at home.