Untouched by an Anglo

El Conquistador, 15420 North 32nd Street, Phoenix, 493-3913. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Friday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Lunch and Dinner, Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Would you ever walk into a bookstore, randomly buy a book and then read it from cover to cover? Probably not--the chances of grabbing one that can hold your interest are pretty slim.

In my line of work, I don't get stuck buying and reading random junk. Instead, I get stuck buying and eating it.

I've walked into hundreds of restaurants over the years, hoping to find something I might enjoy sinking my teeth into. The odds, I've painfully discovered, are stacked against me. That's especially true when it comes to Mexican restaurants.

There seem to be about as many Mexican restaurants in this town as there are books in Borders. And too many of them are stacked with losers: mystery soup; tacos glopped with ersatz cheese; what's-in-this enchiladas; greasy chimichangas; leaden burritos. If these were books, they'd have titles like The Good News About Lead Paint; I'm OK, You're a Paranoid Schizophrenic; Shapely Knees in Thirty Days; and Barry Manilow: Friend or Foe?.

But I've learned several ways to improve the odds of locating reliable south-of-the-border fare. First, go to an appropriate neighborhood. Don't go looking for Mexican food in any zip code housing a private golf course, a Lexus dealer or Nordstrom. Give the staff the once-over. I'm always wary when my waitress is an ASU exchange student from Norway dressed in a Mexican peasant outfit. And check out your fellow diners. If they're all visiting from Milwaukee, I'd bolt.

I noticed right away that both El Conquistador and Adrian's met my geographic, personnel and customer guidelines. I'm happy to report they met most of my culinary demands as well.

El Conquistador is set on the fringes of what's called "The Square." It's a north Phoenix neighborhood, bounded by Greenway Road on the south, Cave Creek Road on the west, Bell Road on the north and 32nd Street on the east. Over the past few years, the Square has become a crowded Mexican enclave, home to about 14,000 residents, many of whom work in Scottsdale's nearby resorts. Two-year-old El Conquistador, a friendly mom-and-pop operation, wants its business, and yours and mine, as well.

It can count on mine. Set in an unprepossessing shopping strip on the southeast edge of the Square, this restaurant has three things going for it: good food at low prices in a pleasant setting.

The two-room place is spic-and-span clean, always a promising sign. One wall features a colorful mural of a senorita in a swirling skirt. The others are hung with serapes, sombreros and Diego Rivera reproductions. The tables are lined with oilcloth and decorated with bottles filled with dyed rice, into which the Mexican and American flags have been planted. Naturally, ay-ay-ay south-of-the-border music is piped in.

The food tastes remarkably fresh. It's also luscious, bursting with deep, intense flavors. However, if you want to experience its full power, you'll have to avoid filling up on the chips. But that's no easy task, because the ones here are crisp and fresh, and served with a peppy red salsa that immediately gets your attention.

There are specials throughout the week, and I think they're special, too. I'm a big posole fan, and El Conquistador's version hits my buttons. It's loaded with pork and hominy, garnished with onions, cilantro and cabbage, and boosted by a red-chile broth with just enough bite to maintain the fascination.

Even better, perhaps, is the formidable albondigas soup. It's stocked with lots of big meatballs, along with oversize hunks of potato, carrot, celery and squash, swimming in a riveting, chipotle-accented broth that gets you beading up with sweat. This soup tastes like something your grandmother might have made, had she come from a Mexican village.

Try to come here on a Tuesday. That's when the cook prepares her outstanding chicken mole enchiladas. I'm drooling now, just thinking about them: two plump enchiladas filled with white meat poultry, draped in a dreamy chocolate-and-chile mole, drizzled with Mexican cheese and topped with a dollop of light cream. You won't find a dish like this at those Mexican restaurants aimed at combination-plate-eating gringos.

The regular menu is also filled with winners. If pork turns you on, order it bathed in either the red or green chile sauce. The red one is more vigorous, with a lingering chile aftereffect. The green sauce is more subtle, but just as beguiling. And the pork itself is topnotch, tender without a trace of gristle.

Tacos will remind you why you liked Mexican food in the first place. The tacos al pastor are as good as I've had, marinated bits of chile-tinged pork double-wrapped in soft corn tortillas, goosed up with onions and cilantro. The shredded-beef tacos are just as irresistible. And so is the price--two for $3.

The chile relleno has plenty going for it, including size. El Conquistador's most elaborate model features a big chile crammed with Mexican white cheese and beef, coated with an eggy batter and deep-fried. The burritos are fetching, too. Fetch yourself a fajita burrito, overstuffed with chicken and cheese, and punched up with crispy chile strips and onion.

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