Mill-Order Catalogue

Crocodile Cafe, 525 South Mill, Tempe, 966-5883. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight.

Even though summer vacation is now in full swing, within a few weeks 40,000 ASU students will be drifting into Tempe, gearing up for the start of school. Over the next nine months, these scholars will study the great books, debate the current issues and cultivate a tan.

Young minds, on the threshold of adulthood, are about to come face to face with questions of the most profound sort. What is the meaning of life? What's the best career path? Can you wear white after Labor Day? And most important, where can you get a good, inexpensive meal within walking distance of the dorms?

Save your tuition. Here, after a lifetime search for knowledge, are my answers: fast horses and single-malt Scotch; marry an heiress; yes; and Crocodile Cafe.

There's no shortage of run-of-the-Mill Avenue restaurants, lackluster joints where students can knock back some brewskis and fill up on burgers, pizza, pasta, salads, sandwiches and grilled animal protein. It's just that going to one of these places is like going to philosophy class: An hour later you can't remember anything about the experience.

Give Crocodile Cafe high marks for distinguishing itself from the pack. It's a rapidly expanding Southern California chain, serving what the company calls "California eclectic-style food which is cross-cultural, fun and full of different flavors." Translation? Burgers, pizza, pasta, salads, sandwiches and grilled animal protein. It just so happens that most of Crocodile Cafe's fare tastes better than the competition's.

It's a good-looking place, an airy, L-shaped room with an open kitchen ornamented with colorful tile. Original works of art, painted in bright Crayola colors, line the walls. Big wooden grids hang from the ceiling, and light rock music is piped in. Outside, an inviting misted patio lets you check out the Mill Avenue scene without fear of being charbroiled in the process. Polite, efficient young servers, decked out in khaki pants and blue-denim shirts, make the setting that much more enjoyable.

So does the food. But you wouldn't think so from the first bit of sustenance you'll encounter: the bread. It sure looks good, a small round loaf cut into quarters. But appearances can be deceiving. This bread was stale, tasting as if it had been sitting around awhile in plastic. The texture was all wrong, too--a mushy top and crumbly interior. Surely Crocodile Cafe can do better.

At $4 to $6, appetizers aren't much of a value, especially when you consider virtually all the main dishes go for under ten bucks. Chinese pot stickers aren't particularly Chinese, even though they're accompanied by chopsticks. You get five bready, pan-fried dumplings served with an exceptionally salty dipping sauce and a mound of shredded cabbage. At about a buck each, they're no bargain. Crab cakes are a better nibble--two crispy, sizzling disks teamed with cabbage and greens.

Main dishes, though, have a quality and flair you don't often run across in chain restaurants. Grilled Cuban Chicken Breast is about as Cuban as I am, but who's here looking for ethnic authenticity? You get a whole chicken breast, breezily seasoned with cinnamon and oregano, and zipped up with almonds, raisins, olives and tomatoes. Tasty fried bananas and worthy black beans and rice complete this hearty platter.

Judging from the Tahini Chicken Salad, Crocodile Cafe knows how to put greenery together, too. A layer of marinated noodles lies at the bottom, flecked with peanuts and sesame seeds. They're covered by a mound of shredded napa cabbage, romaine and red pepper. That's covered in turn with a generous helping of tender, grilled chicken. And the sprightly lime vinaigrette hits just the right note.

Pizzas are equally well-fashioned, and they're big enough to take care of a hungry sophomore's appetite. Pizza Parmesan is effectively topped with sauteed eggplant, basil, garlic, red pepper and mozzarella, and the chewy crust is similarly on target. Like the pizza, the calzone benefits from its stay in the wood-fired oven. But the Southwestern Roasted Pork model doesn't contain enough pork to frighten a rabbi. However, the calzone's black bean, onion and two-cheese filling almost makes up for its absence. Salsa, sour cream and a bit of sliced avocado furnish additional help.

Someone let the linguini in our Linguini Checca sit a little too long in boiling water. But if the cook can remember to take the pasta out before it turns gummy, this dish holds promise. Olive oil, fresh basil, tomato, garlic and ricotta cheese pack a substantial flavor punch.

Oddly enough, Crocodile Cafe falls short in one crucial collegiate category: burgers and fries. The ones here are not remotely in the same class as those at Islands, another Southern California chain that operates across the street. This burger is a relatively skinny, undistinguished specimen, and the curlicue fries lack the taste and texture of fresh-peeled spuds.

But the collegiate sweet tooth is going to be very, very happy at dessert time. That's because Crocodile Cafe imports its treats from the Cheesecake Factory, yet another California-based restaurant company. When I lived in Los Angeles, I thought it made the best cheesecake west of the Mississippi, and I haven't changed my mind. The slices here aren't nearly as big as the ones you get at the Cheesecake Factory's own restaurants, but if you're a cheesecake lover like I am, there is a remedy. Order two.

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