Beyond the Lunchpail

Chez Bubbas Caribbean and Creole House, 801 North First Street, Phoenix, 254-0040. Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

You don't need to see the new multiplex-cinema construction at Arizona Center, the new apartment complexes filling in the empty lots north of Van Buren, the newly restored Orpheum Theatre, the new Arizona Science Center or the massive new Bank One Ballpark looming over Seventh Street to realize that downtown is verging on becoming a happening location.

That's because the first wave of new eating spots has already hit the area, poised to take immediate advantage of a rejuvenated urban core. Savvy owners know the new downtown will draw swarms of people who rarely ventured this way before. And those folks will need to be fed--workers and tourists by day; sports fans, theater patrons and moviegoers by night. I'm no business forecaster, but I suspect restaurant cash registers will be ringing like a slot tournament at a Vegas casino.

Right now, the downtown lunch bunch is in especially good shape. It deserves it. When I moved here eight years ago, not even the sandwich chains and national fast-food operators, who otherwise already seemed to infest every other square foot of Maricopa County, could be tempted to open a branch in this forsaken part of town. If you wanted a reliable lunch in those days, you had to pack it in a brown bag yourself.

Not anymore. The variety and quality of the noontime options now make the prospect of a downtown job far more promising than it used to be.

At first glance, lunch-only Chez Bubbas Caribbean and Creole House looks untouched by urban renewal, the kind of place you'd cross the street to keep from passing. Set in a corner of downtown that hasn't yet been rejuvenated, its only discernible charm, from the outside, is strictly a low-rent one.

Inside, however, it's a completely different story. This quirky place oozes with charm and homey congeniality. The delightful mom-and-pop proprietors set the tone. His domain is the counter, where he thrusts menus at first-timers, takes orders, adds up prices on a pocket calculator and makes correct change. He's a big, affable Long Islander of Jamaican and Native American descent, with remarkable conversational gifts.

And he's certainly smart enough to let his gracious wife run the kitchen. On one visit, when my order got backed up, she saw I was on the brink of starvation. So she brought out some gratis fare to tide me over until lunch was ready. Their son also helps out, a polite young man who actually follows his parents' commands without any noticeable resentment. I may have to return here, if only to gather some child-raising tips.

Chez Bubbas' greatest asset, however, is the fare, a melange of Southern, Caribbean and Louisiana cooking. Once you've put these dishes under your belt, that lunchtime burger, rice bowl or tuna fish sandwich is going to look pretty tame.

What accounts for Chez Bubbas' culinary prowess? Every platter tastes like someone enjoyed preparing it. This is homemade fare, in the best sense of the word.

It's not unsophisticated fare, either. Take a frequent special, crab thermidor, two crustaceans stuffed with shrimp and breading. At $3.85, it's a good nosh to share. So are the Jamaican meat patties, fresh pasties filled with Island-spiced ground beef.

Sandwiches, prepared with pita bread, have real character. The curried-chicken model is particularly splendid, featuring lots of zestily seasoned poultry. The seafood version, which teams crab and shrimp, actually tastes like real seafood.

The flavor jumps out at you from everywhere. Jambalaya is first-rate, rice, shrimp and sausage tossed together with real flair. Feeling flush? On those days when Bubba meets the fleet, he puts together a nifty lobster creole. You get a big hero roll loaded with a spicy creole mix of fish, topped with a lobster claw. At $5.95, it's the most expensive lunch here.

Regulars, however, know that Chez Bubbas' single best lunch dish is the off-the-menu blackened fish. The cook uses orange roughy, which she somehow manages to keep moist while searing it in Cajun spices, then pairs it with rice and beans. The prospect of eating this exceptional platter at noon will make your morning work hours much more tolerable. But make sure you take an early lunch--the kitchen often runs out.

If it does, the peppered shrimp furnish a happy alternative, lots of oily, pungent crustaceans irresistibly paired with a mound of mayo-saturated potato salad. If your cholesterol level can't handle this kind of hit, the zesty chicken creole will satisfy your taste buds without medical incident.

If the boss doesn't mind your taking a short afternoon nap, Chez Bubbas' marvelous desserts will send you back to work in the right frame of mind. The sweet-potato pie, drenched in a potent whiskey sauce, is stupendous. The rich, moist, spirit-filled black rum cake--"a 300-year-old recipe," claims the proprietor--is, if possible, even better. Wash down everything with refreshing, sugar-laden homemade lemonade.

A few caveats, for the finicky: Chez Bubbas is a small place, with just three tables and five counter seats. At prime lunch hours, you may have to wait, both for a seat and your food. It remains to be seen whether the air-conditioning system can make it through a Phoenix summer. Don't count on being informed of the daily specials. Don't have your heart set on finding one particular dish the day you come. Don't be a close-mouthed sourpuss. And bring cash.

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