Spice Grills

This reluctance to go all-out New Mexican characterizes some of the less interesting fare. I imagine the kitchen wants to make sure that the more skittish neighborhood diners will find something their palates can handle. That's certainly the case with the fajitas, hardly a New Mexican dish. They're perfectly good, but there's nothing remotely distinctive about them. No doubt some risk-averse folks will be happy to order the Akela chicken breast, topped with cheese and mild green chile strips. It's okay, but hardly a memorable testament to New Mexican cuisine. The same is true for the three steak entrees, each a 10-ounce rib eye topped with a different sauce, all accompanied by rice and beans.

Finish up with sopaipillas, puffy, steaming pillows of fried dough that natives fill with honey, to help extinguish the flames from the chile heat. The sopaipillas here are just right, and they also come gratis.

My advice: Stick with fare that doesn't stray from Hatch Valley Chile Co.'s New Mexican roots. Then open up and say, "Down the Hatch."

Location Info

Map

LA Familia Mexican Restaurant

3301 W. Indian School Road
Phoenix, AZ 85017

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: West Phoenix

La Familia Mexican Restaurant, 3145 West Indian School, Phoenix, 265-2912. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Arizona, of course, has its own style of Mexican food. At its worst, Az-Mex dishes are lard-loaded, cheese-glopped, sauce-drenched, look-alike snoozers that often inspire many knowledgeable diners to make a run from the border.

But at its best, when the ingredients are fresh, the grease held down and the kitchen skilled, our south-of-the-border desert fare gives notice that Sonoran cooking can go beyond the bland.

At La Familia, a long-running west-side enterprise that changed ownership a few years ago, the proprietors are adept at revealing the oft-buried charms of all the usual Az-Mex suspects.

The first visible sign of that commitment is the room itself. Although the restaurant does business in a down-at-the-heels west-side shopping strip, it's been prettily refurbished. The anteroom is filled with knickknacks--an old coffee mill, a treadle sewing machine, a Coke chest--while the dining area is filled with familiar Mexican-decor touches, like hanging serapes, bullfight posters and embroidered hats.

It's a good sign when restaurant owners throw money into spiffing up a place. It leads you reasonably to expect them to think about taking care of business in the kitchen, too.

La Familia does. You get your first inkling from the chips, which are crispy fresh and teamed with a zippy salsa. If you prefer to pay for a pre-entree nibble, head straight for the cheese crisp. Yes, a cheese crisp sounds just like a typically boring Sonoran munch. After all, what can you expect from a cheese-draped flour tortilla? Except La Familia's version is marvelous: a crispy tortilla spread out over a metal pizza pan, coated with melted cheese and outstanding chunky guacamole. It's simple, and very effective.

The kitchen also sends out a wonderful albondigas soup, heavy with meatballs, squash, tomatoes, rice, onions and celery. It's not soup season in the Valley, but this hearty homemade broth can tempt you to ignore the calendar.

What's a good way to test the character of Az-Mex fare? Order a combination plate. If you can't tell the enchilada from the chile relleno, or the tamale from the burro, it's not a good sign. Too often in this town, you stick a fork into something, take a bite and ask yourself, "What's that?"

That won't be a problem here. The tastes are distinctive. They're flavorful, too. The chile relleno is on target, not too eggy, with just the right amount of cheese and a bit of bite. Tamales are superb. The thick beef tamale gets a boost from the sharp red-chile sauce. The green corn tamale is even better: moist, a bit sweet and with deep corn taste. And there's no mistaking the mild green cheese enchilada for anything else.

In the mood for a burro? The chorizo-and-egg model is particularly well-fashioned, a pleasing combination of texture and taste. The machaca burro, though, is less interesting. Sure, it's crammed full with shredded beef, but it's a one-note affair that seems to have been seasoned principally with air.

The flautas are a much better vehicle for machaca. The fried corn tortillas are rolled around the beef and gilded with cheese and guacamole. You might not want to order this the evening before your annual physical, but it's undeniably tasty. So is the green chile, a stew of tender beef in a green sauce that's mild without being dull. If you're looking for something with more kick, go for the red-chile popover, fry bread heaped with beef in a sharp red sauce.

Feeling flush? At $7.50, the shrimp ranchero plate is the most expensive menu item. You'll get a big serving of crustaceans in a beautifully spiced ranchero sauce pungent with onions, garlic and cilantro.

A fresh-fried apple chimichanga ends the meal on a sweet note. If you're hunting for reliable Az-Mex fare, at La Familia, they're playing your song.

Hatch Valley Chile Co.:
Posole
$4.50
Gordita plate
7.95
Akela chicken
8.95
Rio Grande combo
9.95

La Familia Mexican Restaurant:
Cheese crisp
$4.00
Tamale/enchilada combo
5.95
Chile relleno dinner
5.95
Flautas
6.50

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