Noonraker

Coronado Cafe, 2201 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 258-5149. Hours: Lunch and early dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

What's the highlight of your workday? For most working stiffs, it's the lunch break. When that noon bell rings, we reclaim our autonomy--for a little while, at least, our time is our own.

I've always hated brown-bagging my weekday lunch. It's so depressing, reaching into the sack and digging out the same dreary sandwich and piece of fruit I'd packed earlier. It's hard to go through the morning with nothing to look forward to.

It's a lot more fun eating lunch out, even (or especially) when you can't really afford to. Sitting in a restaurant, part of the noontime bustle, you get the sense that you are somehow reconnecting with humanity, even if you're lunching alone. I believe lunch out is therapeutic, money well spent.

Of course, the working classes don't get to do the two-hour, two-martini executive lunch, where some big shot makes a grand show of picking up the check, even though everyone in the group knows that it's going to be expensed. Most nine-to-fivers I know can't send their lunch tabs to accounting.

So if you're going to dispose of what limited disposable income you have on an occasional restaurant lunch, you want to make sure that you're getting your money's worth. That means three things: good food at reasonable cost in pleasant surroundings. And that's just what you'll find at two delightful new lunch spots, Coronado Cafe and French Ambiance.

Just north of downtown, Coronado Cafe operates out of a charming old house that used to be an antiques store before it turned into a cafe last April. The place is divided into several cozy dining nooks, and there's a porch set up for outdoor eating that should be popular once the weather cools off. Jazzy Billie Holiday tunes and the tranquil hits of the 1930s and 1940s furnish soothing midday auditory relief. The gleaming hardwood floor, fireplace, cupboard and old-fashioned pull shades may make you feel as if you've wandered into Granny's. But Granny didn't take Mastercard and Visa. And, to be honest, her home cooking wasn't nearly as good, either.

Just about everything here gives the impression that this kitchen takes its culinary mission seriously. There's an unmistakable "homemade" quality to the fare, from the made-from-scratch soups to the fresh-baked cookies.

If Granny had made soups like Coronado Cafe's, I probably would have visited her more frequently. It's not easy to get excited over soup in the middle of a Phoenix summer. But my enthusiasm level reached wintertime heights.

Chicken corn chowder is a menu staple. It's thickly stocked with white meat poultry, potato and corn, and it tastes as if someone watched over the pot for hours. If anything, the daily soup specials are even more compelling. One day it was a creamy, twice-baked potato broth, laden with cheese and touched up with a bit of bacon. And on another visit, I was lucky to run into the fabulous curried pumpkin, a refreshing cold soup drizzled with yogurt, studded with walnuts and zinged up by a mild curry bite.

Coronado Cafe's soups have more than taste going for them. No dainty portions here--the bowl will see you through until the five o'clock whistle, while the cup is as big as the bowl at most other places. A garlic asiago cheese crostini accompanying the soups also helps fill in the appetite cracks.

Sandwiches, salads and a daily special make up the rest of the menu. They've all got just a little something extra going for them. Take the tuna sandwich. This one is enlivened by adding hard-boiled eggs, water chestnuts and sprouts to the basic celery-and-onion mix, all moistened with a poppyseed dressing. Served on toasted sourdough, this is tuna for the '90s.

The chicken salad sandwich, on a fresh baguette, features big hunks of white meat teamed with roasted poblanos, fresh greens and a tasty balsamic vinaigrette. The ham sandwich is in the same league, slices of honey-tinged ham with caramelized onion on marble rye, slathered with an attention-getting horseradish cream cheese.

Vegetarians will appreciate the roasted vegetable sandwich, zucchini, yellow squash, red pepper, tomato and the same horseradish cream cheese crammed into fresh focaccia. And even the plain-Jane turkey sandwich gets a boost from a nifty cranberry-serrano chile chutney and smoked Gouda cheese.

The kitchen pays attention to the sides, too. Sandwiches come with a choice of terrific baked beans, done up with bacon; homemade potato salad, made with sliced red potatoes and not too much mayo; or rainbow slaw, a combination of jicama, squash, peppers, cabbage and scallions.

Don't like sandwiches? You can get the tuna and chicken salad scooped onto greens instead of piled into bread. Lettuce fans will also appreciate the Southwestern caesar salad, lots of juicy, pepper-crusted chicken breast meat on a mound of cheese-sprinkled romaine.

The daily specials also make a very favorable impression. One day it was lusty barbecued beef, served with an out-of-this-world rice-and-barley salad freshened with cilantro, cucumber and onions. Another time I oohed and aahed over beef stroganoff, beef, mushrooms and egg noodles in a rich sour cream sauce.

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