Untouched by an Anglo

Two dishes don't make it beyond ordinary. The Conquistador quesadilla comes perfectly griddled, and there's no problem with the cheese and guacamole filling. But the carne asada within is second-rate--it's tough and chewy. I wasn't too impressed with the tamales, either, which are a little too heavy and not quite moist enough.

A word about the beans. I don't know what the cook does to them, but whatever it is, I hope she doesn't stop. It's not too often that beans stop me in my tracks. These are stunningly good, and if they don't come with your dish, they're well worth a $1.25 side-order splurge.

El Conquistador is aptly named. This place puts out the kind of fare it's easy to surrender to.

Adrian's, 2334 East McDowell, Phoenix, 273-7957. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Busy, bustling Adrian's has been dishing out Mexican food for about a dozen years. What keeps the customers happy? The formula is pretty simple: basic fare, well-crafted, at a reasonable price.

Adrian's overlooks a rather unscenic section of McDowell, which diners can gaze on through the wrought-iron bars protecting the windows. Inside, however, the view is more festive.

The place is filled with an extensive collection of south-of-the-border knickknacks, like ceramic chile peppers and decorative plates. Paintings of pueblo village scenes line the walls, and beer signs are everywhere. To make it easy for the servers, table numbers are glued to the wall. Meanwhile, the tables themselves are covered with red oilcloth and topped with flowered vinyl placemats. Naturally, you can count on a state-of-the-art jukebox, which plays nonstop Spanish-language hits.

The chips and salsa don't exactly get meals off to a winging start. While the chips are fresh and crunchy enough, the two bland salsas--red and green--don't do anything to energize them. Surely the kitchen could give them a little more spunk.

Maybe Adrian's is saving the spunk for the main dishes. Several of them merit your attention. Nopales con carne de puerco is one of them, charred, shredded pork teamed with strips of prickly pear cactus pad. (Don't worry, the needles have been removed.) The taste is mild, but it's also very flavorful.

Chicken mole is deftly done, too. The cook sends out half a bird on the bone, drenched with an exotic mole that keeps you focused until the last bite.

Management calls the milanesa an "especialidad de la casa," and I wouldn't dispute the claim. It's a tender piece of steak, pounded millimeter-thin, sealed in crunchy, fresh-fried breading. If you're looking for animal protein, this is the way to go.

The usual suspects also show some flair. The hefty burritos are on target. The machaca model doesn't stint on the quantity or quality of the shredded beef. Even better, I thought, is the oily, fragrant specimen fashioned with spicy chorizo and eggs.

The chile relleno, made with a sharp green chile, is another winner. It's right out of the fryer, and the cheese spurts out when you stick a fork in it. The enchiladas are another first-rate option. The lusty enchiladas Suiza come packed with chicken, creamy Mexican cheese and guacamole. The ones smothered in either green chile or mole turn out equally well.

The proprietors claim that seafood is also an "especialidad de la casa." On this point, however, I'm not so quick to agree.

I wasn't too impressed with the vuelva a la vida. Maybe I should have come here with a hangover--that's what this seafood cocktail is reputed to cure. But this lackluster mix of shrimp, oyster, crab and abalone in a lifeless tomato sauce did nothing for me while sober. The briny freshness that characterizes the best seafood cocktails was completely absent.

It also wasn't detectable in the seven seas soup. In most every other place, this dish is a sure-fire winner. But Adrian's version was disappointing. The flavorless broth and veggies tasted like they came out of a can. And some suspicious-smelling fish didn't improve my mood, either. There was also nothing memorable about the shrimp rancheros, midsized crustaceans uneventfully tossed with chile and onions.

Sides of rice and beans, which come with most dishes, could also use some work. They do nothing more than take up belly room.

Stick to the landlubber dishes. As long as Adrian's hugs the shore, it's not in over its head.

El Conquistador:
Fajita burrito
Chile relleno
Chicken mole enchiladas

Chorizo and egg burrito
Nopales with pork
Chicken mole
Seven seas soup


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