Tortilla Flash

Wrap City Grill, 4423 East Thomas, Phoenix, 956-9727. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

We Valley dwellers have a lot of things going for us. But being on the cutting edge of popular culture isn't one of them.

Touring versions of shows that opened on Broadway during the Bush administration take so long to get here you'd think the cast and set traveled by wagon train. Movies hailed by Los Angeles film critics as "among the best of 1996" don't show up in our theaters until 1997. And fashion? I have a feeling Parisian couturiers won't be accessorizing this year's collection with bola ties, cowboy hats or shoulder holsters.

Our local food scene is also behind the times. Fads from America's culinary capitals make a leisurely trip to us in the boonies. That's why we've had to wait several years for one of Southern California's hottest eating concepts to cross the Mojave Desert: wraps.

Remember the gourmet-pizza craze that Wolfgang Puck created at Spago in the early 1980s? He got the brilliant notion of topping pizza with all sorts of then-exotic items that you'd never find at a neighborhood pizzeria: goat cheese, pesto, barbecued duck. (At Vinnie's Pizzeria, in my old neighborhood, a gourmet pizza was any pizza that Vinnie shooed the flies from.) The trendoids loved Puck's innovation, and the mass-marketers quickly picked up on it. These days, of course, the concept is so thoroughly a part of American culinary consciousness that it's become a cliche.

Wraps are a twist on this idea. But instead of pizza crust, this time the object of culinary affection and attention is the flour tortilla. Traditionally, plain tortillas lined with salsa enfolded some combination of beans, meat and cheese. Eating a burro has been about as trendy as dancing the polka.

Not anymore. Now, tortillas are being stuffed with everything from chicken sausage to blackened mahimahi, embellished with the likes of stir-fried broccoli or Cajun rice, and moistened with a honey-barbecue glaze or a tangerine-sesame sauce. And the plain tortilla has given way to models that would make Mexican villagers scratch their heads in amazement: jalapeno-cilantro tortillas; spinach-pesto tortillas; honey-wheat tortillas.

It's probably only a matter of time until tortillas, like pizza and bagels, shed their ethnic character and become part of the American culinary melting pot. How can you think otherwise, when even chains like Long John Silver's and Taco Bell have taken up the wrap concept?

You can glimpse the wrap future at Wrap City Grill. Right now, it sets the standard by which local wraps are going to be judged.

The place occupies the corner of a massive, sprawling, traffic-clogged, consumer-unfriendly, California-type shopping center at 44th Street and Thomas. Wrap City Grill's cheery, colorful interior has a California look, too: neon beer signs, tabletops brightened with nifty collages, tiny lights twinkling overhead. Naturally, the three televisions behind the bar are tuned to sports, and rock music blares out of the music system. It's a look that fairly screams, "Franchise me." I certainly wouldn't mind, as long as the operators could keep up the quality.

Although Wrap City Grill offers salads and burgers, the 18 imaginative wraps are the heart of this operation. They're wonderful, fresh, huge, heavy, filling critters that are almost as suitable for bench-pressing as they are for eating. Management ought to consider offering half-size options.

Beginners may want to start off conservatively, with meat and potatoes. That would be the Kansas City wrap, lots of tender grilled steak, bacon-flecked mashed potatoes, grilled onions and peppers, black-bean-and-corn relish, and a kicky sweet/spicy barbecue sauce that brings everything together, all folded into a sun-dried-tomato-and-basil tortilla.

If you want to get more daring, there's plenty of opportunity. The Goat and Thai wrap's principal ingredient is chicken breast grilled in a peanut-barbecue sauce, teamed with fruited rice in a chile tortilla. If you're looking for some heat, check out the Ragin' Cajun Shrimp wrap, decent-size shrimp (not those teeny creatures that shouldn't even be called "shrimp") paired with Cajun rice, olives, a bit of goat cheese and tomatillo salsa with a real hot pepper snap.

I'm particularly fond of the fish wraps. The Rocky Point wrap employs grilled fish, fruited rice, spinach and an effective chipotle honey sauce. The Fin There Done That wrap (yes, the cutesy names get wearying after a while) is even better: lightly seared ahi tuna partnered with veggies in a quirky peanut sauce.

It will probably take a few visits to screw your courage up to the point where you can order the Ajo Alfredo or Godfather wraps. The former features ground chicken sausage, risotto, coleslaw, roasted garlic tomatillo salsa and a "Southwest" Alfredo sauce. The latter brings together chicken sausage, garlic-basil mashed potatoes, black-bean-corn relish, "Mediterranean" coleslaw, roasted garlic red sauce and pesto-goat-cheese sauce.

If those are too daunting, you can always retreat to the tasty BLT wrap: bacon, lettuce and tomato gilded with rice, spinach and what the menu calls an "avocado zucchini sauce." All the wraps come with fresh chips and house-made pico de gallo that's much better than it has to be.

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