Cramming for Finals

Paradise Bar & Grill, 401 South Mill, Tempe, 829-0606. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Life in a university town can be incredibly appealing. Anyone who has ever wandered off-campus in Ann Arbor, Berkeley or Madison knows that the pulsating street scene--the funky collegiate mix of record stores, art-movie theaters, bars, coffee houses, used-book stores and restaurants--does more to keep 18-year-olds in school than any course in Ottoman history, organic chemistry or Shakespeare's heroines ever could.

For a long time, students at Arizona State University missed out on that unique college-town experience. Before Tempe started redeveloping about a decade ago, the Mill and University corridors didn't exactly throb with energy. Believe it or not, 10 years ago, there wasn't even a single coffee house on them. Folks from elsewhere in the Valley certainly had little reason to make a trip to downtown Tempe. They had as much chance finding bustling urban life here as they did finding good fishing off the Salt River bridge.

Times have sure changed. This area is thriving. Nowadays, you have a better chance sighting a UFO than an empty parking spot. Even the pizza parlors and sandwich shops offer decaf mocha lattes. And you could show up every night of the week and not exhaust your entertainment, shopping and dining options.

But it's a mistake to confuse change with progress. Why restore a historic building and then lease it out to the likes of Hooters and McDonald's? Why add ubiquitous chain bookstores and brand-name clothing shops to the retail mix? Why build movie multiplexes showing the same films playing at every other theater in Maricopa County? And why lure fashionable new restaurants--Sushi on Mill, P.F. Chang's, Oregano's are all coming--that aren't new at all, just copycat branches of other successful operations?

In short, downtown Tempe is well on its way to looking exactly like every other trendy shopping/dining/entertainment strip in the Valley. Yes, you can now amuse yourself endlessly. But why did the city fathers and mothers have to sacrifice the charm, character and style you find in the best college towns?

To measure the extent of the homogenization, I pounded the city's pavement searching for restaurants that looked like they hadn't made the sacrifice. First stop, Paradise Bar & Grill.

It sure looked promising. It's set in the historic Andre building, which, during the past century, has housed a bakery, grocery store, pool hall, cigar store, Masonic lodge and post office. The proprietors have done a wonderful job restoring the place, with its high, pressed-metal ceiling and red-brick walls. Heavily varnished tables, old-fashioned wooden booths, etched glass and brass accents contribute to the effect.

Happily, the food is just about as impressive as the digs. The menu offers something for almost every taste, a nice mix of familiar favorites and contemporary fare. And most of it is very well-crafted and reasonably priced.

There may be better, greater pleasures than sitting with a cold brewski and a pile of Paradise Bar & Grill's terrific onion rings, but, at the moment, I can't think of any. Someone here obviously spent time at ASU's Institute of Advanced Onion Ring Studies. These beauties are everything they should be--huge, fresh, oily and crispy. I know I sometimes sound like a broken record, but: Why can't all kitchens make onion rings the way they're supposed to be?

If you're not into deep-fried munchies, don't despair. Instead, nibble on the intriguing soft-shell crab roll, a sushilike effort with rice on the outside and cooked crab, cucumber and sprouts on the inside. But it needs something other than the useless citrus dipping sauce we got here. How about some soy sauce, instead?

I'm not quite sure what oven-baked, nutmeg-tinged gnocchi in a zesty tomato sauce are doing on the appetizer list. The bowl is hard to share, and solo diners won't have any room left for dinner. But you won't hear me complaining about the taste. However, I do have some concerns about the breadbasket, filled with fragrant dark bread that is way, way too mushy.

Paradise Bar & Grill's main-dish list gives everyone in your group plenty of options. Pasta fans should appreciate the first-rate spinach linguini. It's creatively studded with smoked trout, tomatoes and mushrooms. A creamy jalapeno sauce puts just the right finishing touch on this rich platter.

If octopus turns you on, zero in on the heavily stocked octopus salad. It's got an Asian bent, tossed with noodles and pickled seaweed, moistened with a pleasant scallion-soy dressing.

Heartier appetites will gravitate to the menu's entree section, whose plates come with either nifty soups, like black and white bean freshened with cilantro, or a pile of house greenery.

On this list, you'll find chicken breast stuffed with sage-seasoned spinach and veggies, accompanied by bland creamy polenta. (Why not grill the polenta and brush it with cheese?) There's a fetching jambalaya, andouille sausage, shrimp and chicken tossed over angel hair, bathed in heat-packing Cajun sauce that makes no compromises. There's also a grilled strip steak, beefy and chewy, accompanied by exceptional garlic mashed potatoes.

Don't neglect the hamburger. This juicy patty is fashioned from a half-pound of sirloin and comes with French fries so good your tablemates will be reaching over to "help" you finish them.

Maybe we were too full to appreciate it, but dessert doesn't seem to have quite the flair of the other courses. The amaretto cheesecake is routine, while the creme brulee tastes more like butterscotch pudding with a burnt-sugar glaze.

Paradise Bar & Grill targets both grown-ups and the college crowd, and manages to hit both marks with a bit of style. That's enough to set it apart from most of your run-of-the-Mill Avenue restaurants.

Char's Thai Restaurant, 927 East University, Tempe, 967-6013. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Char's has been dishing out Thai food in Tempe for nearly 15 years, long before redevelopment was even a twinkle in some city planner's eye.

After making my way through the menu, I'd say Char's is in some need of redevelopment itself.

Now, bad Thai food simply can't exist. How can any cuisine whose dishes rely on the irresistible scents of lemongrass, galangal, lime leaf, coconut milk and hot red and green chiles be anything but appealing?

The problem is, Char's has been doing this for so long, its kitchen seems to be operating on autopilot. I expect Thai food to soar. But most of Char's offerings don't gather up enough speed to get off the ground.

Visually, the place is a hoot, with a Bangkok-meets-the-Old West theme. Gleaming red booths, native-land artifacts, pictures of Thai royalty and pagoda-patterned wallpaper compete with lighted-up wagon wheels lined across the wall.

But while the setting is eye-opening, the painfully lackluster fare isn't. The Sterno-fired soups set the tone. No country on the planet does soup better than Thailand, but you'd be hard-pressed to make that point after sampling the two models we ordered. The hot-and-sour shrimp soup sported five shrimp, scallions and lame, sliced white mushrooms, and the broth was seasoned by all the usual suspects. But this soup had no energy. Neither did tom kha gai, a chicken soup whose coconut-milk base was way too thin.

Appetizers don't offer many thrills, either. When I ordered number 16, koong kha bok, the waitress tried to talk me out of it. "Most people don't like it," she said. "Are you sure you want it?" After that ringing endorsement, you bet I did.

It turned out to be a big platter of battered, deep-fried stuff: pork and shrimp on a skewer; broccoli; mushrooms; carrot; and green pepper. If it weren't for the red-chile dipping sauce, you'd have thought it had wandered in from a sports-bar kitchen.

Another starter, yum pla meurk, promised thinly sliced squid. Instead, we got big, rubbery chunks, although the pungent mint, chile and lime dressing made the chewing much more palatable. Meanwhile, nothing about the mee krob--a sweet, crispy noodle platter touched up with shrimp, pork and egg--gave any indication why it's probably Thailand's most famous dish.

Main dishes brought further disappointment. A yellow-curry special combined bits of prefab-looking chicken with onion and hard, undercooked potatoes. And the one-dimensional yellow-curry sauce had none of the fabled Thai complexity I yearned for. An egg noodle dish, #29, couldn't excite us, either, done in by too little barbecue pork, too many desultory pieces of "krab" and almost no flavor. The menu's most expensive offering, panang seafood, provided more evidence that this kitchen simply isn't trying very hard. For $13.95, we got some chewy squid, a few shrimp and anonymous shards of fish, tossed with a ton of green pepper. And my expectations were way too high for its sauce, which had scarcely a trace of the promised basil, coconut milk and peanut accents.

Another sign of Char's lethargy is the out-of-date takeout menu. One dish that caught my eye for a future in-house visit was #39, karw pad suppa-rode. It sounded great: "Exotic pineapple fried rice, served in a pineapple shell. The fruit is scooped from inside and fried with shrimp, chicken, cashew nuts and rice, then returned to the shell and baked before serving."

But when I asked about it, the waitress said they hadn't served it for years. All Char's now offers is a cafeteria-quality fried-rice plate, heaped with canned pineapple and a spoonful of tired-looking chicken and shrimp.

A few dishes pass muster. Green beans tossed with pork had some of the sprightly Thai flavors I'd missed elsewhere. So did the khad yud sai, a Thai version of egg foo yung, an omelet tastily stuffed with ground beef, red pepper and veggies. And the pad Thai, thin fried noodles topped with ground peanuts, managed to show a bit of vigor.

Time seems to have passed Char's by. Until the restaurant catches up, so should you.

Paradise Bar & Grill:
Onion rings
$4.75
Sirloin burger
5.95
Octopus noodle salad
7.95
Jambalaya
12.95

Char's Thai Restaurant:
Hot-and-sour shrimp soup
$7.95
Pad Thai
6.95
Green beans and pork
6.95
Chicken yellow curry
7.95

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