Ahwatukee Trot

Caffe Boa, 5063 East Elliot, Ahwatukee, 893-3331. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Why do people confuse money with class? Ted Kennedy and Fife Symington, for instance, are both dripping with wealth, acknowledged or not. But over the years, their behavior has been both legally questionable and morally dubious. Or stroll through Beverly Hills and check out the oxygen bars, the garish mansions and the chauffeured Land Rovers. The money is here, all right. But in the entire 90210 zip code, there's not enough class to fill a thimble.

The verdict isn't in yet on Ahwatukee, a fast-growing, well-off Valley enclave nestled near South Mountain. Its prosperous residents can take pride in beautiful homes, picture-postcard views and reassuring suburban security. But when it comes to eating out, Ahwatukee is, without putting too fine a point on it, the pits.

I don't think I've ever seen such a wide disparity between a neighborhood's affluence and the quality of its restaurants. It would take a skilled sociologist to figure out why acres of classless chain restaurants, whose bland fare is aimed straight at the McMasses, have sprung up here, where people can afford to eat better. (To be fair, the same chain phenomenon is also occurring in the tony northeast Valley. However, folks there have lots of nonchain options.)

Sensing the opportunity to muscle in on the chains, two independent restaurants have seized the moment to establish an Ahwatukee beachhead. The thinking at Caffe Boa and Esteban is simple: Give sophisticated locals who have discretionary dining-out dollars an alternative to chains, and they will eagerly come. It's a winning strategy, as far as it goes. Getting people to come certainly won't be difficult. The real question is: After a first visit, can the restaurants get people to come back?

Pasta-themed Caffe Boa should have no problem attracting repeat neighborhood business. This is its second branch--there's also a small Mill Avenue operation--and the proprietors' experience clearly has helped in Ahwatukee. For the most part, Caffe Boa has hit the ground running.

The featureless strip-mall location doesn't have anything going for it, but the cafe itself has some character. There's a pleasant, partially covered patio with a soothing, gurgling fountain. Inside, gaze at the colorful art depicting bistro scenes. And if the piped-in music isn't to your taste, just wait a couple of minutes. In the space of half an hour, it can go from rap to jazz to "Autumn in New York."

Caffe Boa wisely steers clear of the deep-fried appetizer staples that chain restaurants rely on. Instead of onion rings, potato skins and chicken wings, this kitchen offers the likes of snails bathed in a garlicky white-wine sauce, burnished with mushrooms, roasted red peppers and olives. Salsiccia contadina is marvelous, sliced, fennel-accented sausages in a full-bodied tomato sauce zipped up with olives, mushrooms and basil. There's plenty of flavor here to go around.

Crostini are a lighter way to edge into dinner. You get four small, toasted baguette slices piled high with marinated veggies, mushrooms and capers. They're a tasty nibble.

If the urge for pre-entree greenery strikes, however, I'd advise you to suppress it. The house salad, a mass of red-leaf lettuce, two small tomato wedges and a couple of pepper strips, is way overpriced at five bucks. For this kind of dough, I expect to see some livelier greens and some combination of mushrooms, artichokes, cucumbers, olives or cheese. Too bad, too, because I really liked the homemade mango-herb dressing. Don't expect to do cartwheels over the bread, either, a lackluster loaf with no discernible charm.

Fortunately, the main dishes help you get over salad disappointment in a hurry. The menu generally features a half-dozen or so specials that seem to show up with some regularity. One evening's escolar luau turned into halibut luau when the kitchen ran out of escolar. But once the substitute got grilled and bathed in a highly aromatic sauce scented with lemongrass, cilantro, ginger, garlic, clam juice and vanilla bean, and then heaped atop a mound of noodles, most folks wouldn't have cared about the switch. The platter also comes with glazed pineapple and banana, an odd touch. At the time, I couldn't figure out whether this dish was weird or wonderful. Looking back, I believe I was right on both counts: It's weirdly wonderful.

Ciao won ton is another special that's creatively bizarre. Won ton wrappers are stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese and sweet potatoes, a very untraditional pairing, then coated with a creamy roasted garlic sauce. What can I say? It works.

Less successful is the pizzazz pork, which sounds a lot better than it tastes: "Grilled pork tenderloin that's been marinated in a beer, soy and honey mixture, served with a Thai sweet-and-hot plum sauce over rice noodles." The problems were many, starting with low-quality pork that hadn't been cooked all the way through. The Thai sauce was also pretty much of a snooze, especially when matched against the sauces in the halibut luau and ciao won ton.

Caffe Boa's regular menu leans heavily toward pasta, most with a vegetarian bent. These dishes are done right, and, with nothing more than $9.95, they're priced right, too. Agnolotti are pasta pouches filled with mushrooms and herbs, smoothed with a tomato cream sauce. The taste is subtle, the texture is rich and the overall effect is quite pleasing. Traditionalists will find a worthy pasta putanesca, rigatoni freshened by a zingy, spicy tomato sauce zipped up with capers, olives and mushrooms. If you prefer your pasta a little more offbeat, consider the rancho ravioli. Ancho chile pasta is filled with pinto beans, jalapenos and cheese, and coated with an inventive, attention-getting salsa verde fashioned from tomatillos, cilantro, onions and lime juice.

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