Bien There; Done That

Via DeLosantos, 9120 North Central, Phoenix, 997-6239. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

There are few experiences in life more satisfying than having your prejudices confirmed.

If you're an Arizona Republican candidate for office, it's learning that your Democratic opponent keeps a poster of Ho Chi Minh on his bedroom wall and a well-thumbed copy of the Communist Manifesto on his nightstand.

If you're a plain-looking brunette edged out in a job search, it's discovering that the shapely blonde who got the position couldn't spell "dog" if you spotted her the "d" and the "o."

If you're a manic-depressive, it's reading a note in your Chinese fortune cookie that says, "Prepare yourself for some good news and some bad news."

And if you're a restaurant critic, it's trying out a pair of Mexican restaurants, one a venerable, friendly, family-run spot, the other a sterile, new-to-town link in a corporate chain, and finding that the family restaurant serves quality south-of-the-border fare, while the newcomer dishes out the kind of God-awful glop that encourages you to make a run from the border.

It's no secret that the staples of most local Mexican-restaurant meals--chips, tortillas, cheese, chicken, rice, beef, beans, red sauce--permit only a limited number of culinary permutations. That's why, if you eat this combo-plate stuff over an extended period of time, it's hard to maintain much excitement for Mexican food. Ask yourself: How many nights in a row would you want to face tacos, burros and enchiladas?

Actually, if they came from Via DeLosantos, I'd probably be able to face these usual suspects indefinitely. This kitchen manages to take the "Snore" out of "Sonoran" Mexican food.

Via DeLosantos (DeLosantos is the family name) is a festive-looking place, perhaps overly festive. Too much contemplation of the scenery may lead to blurry vision. Strings of chile lights, beer pennants and a Kahlœa pinata hang across the room, while almost every square inch of wall is covered by multicolored serapes, baskets, sombreros, woven fabric, terra-cotta masks, bullfight posters and velvet paintings. If you close your eyes, you can concentrate on the nonstop, piped-in Mexican music.

Make sure you open them again when the server brings over fresh chips and two kinds of salsa--a sprightly pico de gallo and a snout-clearing hot sauce. Accompanied by one of the restaurant's potent 99-cent frozen margaritas, they get the meal off to a festive start. (How do you make a 99-cent margarita? There are only two ways: You can make it watery, or make it small. Via DeLosantos opts for small, but these babies still pack a sting.)

If you'd rather pay for your chips, the bubbling deluxe nachos are worth paying for. They feature plenty of cheese, shredded beef, beans, green onions and tomatoes. The $3.85 half-order, which easily satisfies three appetites, is a consumer-friendly touch.

But don't fill up too quickly. The wonderful, budget-priced Sonoran dishes will make you remember why you liked this sort of food in the first place.

The hefty burros require two hands to wield, but no effort to chow down. The red chicken model is one of the better local versions: hunks of moist, white-meat fowl coated with a subtle, mildly spicy red chile sauce. It's the kind of burro where, after your first bite, you involuntarily let out an "Mmmm." The burro fashioned from egg, chorizo and potatoes is just as satisfying.

From the a la carte list, I put together my own lip-smacking combo platter. First, I went for the Sonora enchilada--a crispy, homemade corn tortilla topped with cheese and a piquant red sauce. Next, I hooked a fish taco, filled with an ample portion of flaky, grilled fish. (Most fish tacos in this town don't have enough fish in them to rouse my summer-dormant cat.) Then I nabbed the green corn tamale moistened with green sauce, which tasted like it had just come from a Mexican village.

Grilled pork tacos are a standout: lean, juicy strips of meat combined with the usual taco fixings. The machaca platter is also expertly done: tender, shredded beef scrambled with egg and chile. Roll some up in a tortilla, pour on the hot sauce, and enjoy. The chile relleno, eggy, bready and cheesy, is tasty enough, but not quite in the same league.

Fajitas aren't served Tex-Mex style--no hissing iron skillet, no tray full of condiments. They come on a regular plate, but if our shrimp calabacita fajitas were any indication, you won't miss the sizzle. Fragrantly marinated shrimp are grilled with zucchini, corn, onions, peppers and tomatoes, while first-rate rice and beans add to the pleasure. At $8.50, this is the most expensive dish here, and no one is likely to feel cheated.

Desserts aren't fancy, but both the homemade flan and deep-fried apple burrito with ice cream are effective ways to finish up.

Cheap, fresh and tasty--that's how I like my Mexican food. At Via DeLosantos, you'll hit the trifecta.

Don Pablo's, 1935 East Camelback, Phoenix, 265-3336. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

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