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.

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
$3.95
Posole
4.95
Chile relleno
6.95
Chicken mole enchiladas
6.95

Adrian's:
Chorizo and egg burrito
$2.75
Nopales with pork
6.50
Chicken mole
6.50
Seven seas soup
8.

95

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