Second Helpings

Caribbean Cruise: You don't often see the words "Scottsdale" and "bargain dining" in the same sentence. But to my happy surprise, I ran across an offbeat new place that not only dishes out wonderful food, but also gives you plenty of change back from a tenspot.

It's Caribbean Grill, a fast-food-style outlet that specializes in island fare.

About three months old, it's a family operation headed by a friendly guy who constitutes his own United Nations: He was born in China, moved to Cuba as a child, and grew up in the Dominican Republic before moving to town 11 years ago.

You order at the back end of the room, then take a seat and wait a couple of minutes for someone to bring over your food.

They say good things come to he who waits. That's certainly true here. Try an appetizer of tostones ($1.75), fried green plantains served with a black bean dip. Yuca con mojo ($2.45) is a substantial nibble, boiled cassava goosed up with mojo, garlicky olive oil teamed with onions.

The main dishes are remarkably cheap, tasty and filling, packed with real Caribbean flair. Try bacalao guisado ($5.99), a Caribbean staple made from salt cod. One writer has compared the fish's aroma to "a hamper full of dirty gym socks," but Caribbean Grill knows how to perk it up. It comes bathed in a lively sauce freshened with capers, olives and peppers.

Lechon asado (at $6.49, it's the most expensive entree) brings three thin slices of distinctively marinated pork roast. Even better is the hearty carne guisada ($5.49), tender cubes of beef gilded with tomatoes, peppers and onions.

Side dishes are a highlight--you can get two with each entree. The black beans have real flavor, zipped up with onions and meat. Maduros are irresistible, fried ripe plantains gilded with cinnamon-honey sauce. Fancy Scottsdale restaurants could learn something from the saffron rice flecked with chorizo.

The cold tropical pasta salad is teeming with carrots, olives, pineapple and pepper. And if you're open to new experiences, look into the Puerto Rican-style pigeon peas in a richly seasoned sauce that has sweet and sour notes. The French fries, however, are completely ordinary.

A Cuban sandwich ($3.99) is a rare treat in this town. Caribbean Grill makes its own Cuban bread and fills it with a slice of roast pork, cheese and ham. It even has the right equipment, a plancha. It's a hinged grill that flattens the sandwich, crisps the crust and melts the cheese.

Make sure you get a tropical fruit shake ($2.50). There are mango, guanabana, papaya and mamey, which tastes a bit like melon.

When we left, I told the proprietor how much we enjoyed our meal. "Tell a friend," he said. I'll do better than that--I'll tell several hundred thousand of them.

Caribbean Grill is at 9719 North Hayden, Scottsdale, just south of Mountain View Road. Call 368-9779.

--Howard Seftel

Suggestions? Write me at hseftel@newtimes.com or New Times, P.O. Box 2510, Phoenix,

 
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