East Side Story

Crackers & Co. Cafe, 535 West Iron Avenue, Mesa, 898-1717. Hours: Breakfast and Lunch, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., seven days a week; Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m.

You want affordable housing and good schools? The East Valley's got them. You want low crime rates and conservative values? The East Valley's got them. You want higher-end restaurants with intriguing dishes? The East Valley hasn't got them. For the most part, you have as much chance of finding a Mensa membership card in J.D. Hayworth's wallet as you do finding a quality upscale place to eat in this neck of the county.

For decades, the East Valley's only distinction as a culinary destination point has been as the center of the chain-restaurant universe. Recently, the food scene has blossomed a bit, as spillover immigration from the West Coast began fueling an ethnic-restaurant mini-boom. For the first time, locals encountered Indian, Vietnamese, Korean and Middle Eastern cuisine. (Of course, there's never been a shortage of Mexican fare.)

But restaurants with even moderately ambitious menu aims are rarer in these parts than a "Gay Liberal Democrats for Matt Salmon" political action committee.

I hear that a swanky new place is coming to Gilbert. But in the meantime, are East Valley diners hungry for a good meal doomed to fight westbound Superstition Freeway traffic to Phoenix and Scottsdale? I scouted out a couple of Mesa alternatives, one new, one old, to see if discerning locals could stay closer to home without too much gastronomic sacrifice.

Crackers & Co. has been dishing out breakfast and lunch since 1984. Now, after 14 years, the proprietors believe there's an East Valley clientele out there ready for what they call "creative" dining. A few months ago, they hired a young chef, developed a 1990s menu and started up dinner operations.

The place has a homey, Victorian look--this is how Grandma might have decorated a restaurant. Dark wood shelves are laden with plates, lamps and books. Pretty dried-flower arrangements are everywhere. Tempting desserts beckon from a display case. A heavy mirror and prints of country scenes line the walls. The tables are covered not with linen, but old-fashioned vinyl. However, I'm not sure Grandma would be piping in the '60s-to-'90s light pop, everything from Bette Midler to Celine Dion.

I'm also pretty sure Grandma wouldn't have devised this menu. While the dishes here wouldn't turn any heads in Scottsdale, some of them have more verve than Mesans are used to.

Meals start off promisingly. Make your own bruschetta out of the fresh, European-style bread and nifty, homemade sauce fashioned from olive oil, garlic and tomatoes. It's tempting to fill up--actually, it's almost impossible not to. But, if you order right, you'll soon discover the advantages of delayed gratification.

A couple of appetizers show spunk. The quesadilla is outstanding, a griddled tortilla filled with blackened chicken, jack cheese and spinach. The portabella salad is as good as the salads in the tonier zip codes. It brings together a big grilled mushroom, goat cheese, fresh greens and a sprinkle of pine nuts, all teamed with a warm crepe flecked with chives and sun-dried tomatoes.

Less successful are the filet mignon medallions, two pan-grilled hunks each precariously stacked on a slice of tomato in turn perched on a bed of spinach. The twin towers are topped with Gorgonzola cheese and moistened by a shallot vinaigrette. This isn't an appetizer; it's dinner.

Consider starting off with soup. The creamy seafood broth is close to exquisite, lush with the scent of the sea. A roasted tomato and artichoke soup is lighter, but the flavors are no less intense. In contrast, the wild mushroom soup is too one-dimensional--it could use a splash of cream or sherry.

At entree time, think catch-of-the-day. The kitchen demonstrates real talent with fish, and the price is right, too.

One evening's special featured a gorgeously moist slab of sea bass coated with cumin seeds, paired with Spanish rice and asparagus. Another evening's highlight was pistachio-crusted Idaho trout, which tasted as if it just jumped out of the Snake River. At $10.95, the tag can also make you jump for joy. Meanwhile, you won't find a better-value cioppino than Crackers & Co.'s $9.95 model. This version comes stocked with good-sized shrimp, two handsome sea scallops and chunks of salmon, all served over orzo in an appealingly light seafood broth.

In contrast, chicken is a bit of a snooze. Yes, a dish like chicken roulade, stuffed with spinach, peppers and Gorgonzola, is up-to-date. But neither the poultry nor the overcooked, burnt "risotto" accompaniment made a favorable impression. Most of this platter's pleasure came from the olive-studded ratatouille side. And nondescript blackened chicken, tossed over angel hair, should probably be tossed from the menu--it's a chain-restaurant dish.

But the tomato basil linguini isn't. It's a heaping bowl of pasta festooned with tomato, artichokes and pine nuts, heavily accented with basil and garlic, and creamily embellished with a dollop of Brie.

The house-made desserts look picture-perfect. Unfortunately, that's as close to perfection as they get. A couple are done in by a heavy, heavy hand. That's certainly the case with the achingly dense chocolate blackberry mousse and chocolate cannoli. Both could benefit from better quality chocolate, too. The pastry chef's instincts are right with the white chocolate mango tart, set in a chocolate cup. But the execution is weak--the fruit was still frozen. If you must have your sweets, the marble cheese cake rises to the level of satisfactory.

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