The Mex Files

Acapulco Bay Co., 3030 North 68th Street, Scottsdale, 480-429-1990. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Today's Jeopardy! answer: Triple-digit temperatures, crooked politicians and Mexican restaurants.

The correct question: Name three things Phoenix doesn't need any more of.
The census bureau says that the Valley has grown by almost three-quarters of a million people this decade. According to my calculations, each newcomer has opened a Mexican restaurant.

Of course, it's no surprise that, as close as we are to the border, this town is awash in enchiladas, burros and tamales. What is surprising is how uninspired most of the Mexican food is. I figure I've been to hundreds of taco parlors, mom-and-pop storefronts, chains and full-service restaurants during my career here, panning for south-of-the-border gastronomic gold. But after so many hunts, I still don't need all my fingers to count off the number of places that get my juices flowing.

I certainly don't need all my fingers to count up the Valley's Mexican seafood restaurants. I'm baffled by their absence. If anyone were ever foolish enough to bankroll me, I'd open a white-tablecloth Mexican seafood restaurant in fashionable north Scottsdale, aimed directly at the disposable-income crowd. It's a no-brainer: Mexican seafood packs a double wallop, bringing together our cravings for ethnic and aquatic fare.

I'd make sure my targets--high-end tourists and timid local gringos who rarely venture south of Camelback--wouldn't feel ill at ease. There'd be no heavy duty ay-ay-ay music, or high-decibel Top 40 tunes blaring out of the music system. The televisions wouldn't be tuned to the Spanish station. I'd set out reassuringly heavy cutlery and good china. I'd give the dishes Spanish names, but back them up with full English-language descriptions. And I'd charge at least 20 bucks for entrees. I bet the place would be packed.

The operators of Acapulco Bay obviously share my major premise. About six months ago, they opened a Mexican seafood restaurant in Scottsdale, the only one there I'm aware of. But they've set up shop in south Scottsdale, on an unremarkable strip of 68th Street just north of Thomas. They've disagreed with my ideas about music, television and table settings. They've also disregarded my views about the importance of a comprehensive bilingual menu. Yes, the menu here is in Spanish and English. But the English-only crowd isn't going to be terribly edified when they see that Camarón Azteca is translated as Azteca Shrimp.

Fortunately for Mexican seafood lovers, the proprietors have also ignored my scorched-wallet policy. Seafood is never cheap, especially in the middle of the desert. But ethnic seafood is almost always less pricey. Here, the entrees come in at a reasonable $10 to $15, and the portions are substantial.

Most important, the seafood is generally quite tasty. And in one instance, it's so good that you may have to be hosed down.

If you come with three friends, consider starting off by sharing the outstanding calamar frito. The platter is big enough to feed Shamu, and tasty enough to make him happy, too. These aren't your typical, pre-battered, freezer-bag, greasy, chewy cephalopod mollusks. Instead, you get hacked-up pieces of fresh, tender squid, delicately battered and whisked right out of the fryer, teamed with a nifty dipping sauce touched up with horseradish.

The tostada de ceviche (translated as "ceviche tostada") is a munchie marvel. At $3 each, you may be tempted to order two of them and call it a night. You get a crisp tortilla, heavily piled with luscious, lime-freshened minced seafood that tastes like it just jumped out of the ocean.

Oddly enough, Acapulco Bay's seafood cocktails aren't quite as beguiling as they might be. There's no problem with the seafood--both the shrimp and octopus are first-rate. But they're packed in a somewhat tepid liquid that could use a cilantro and onion boost.

Acapulco Bay does offer a few non-seafood appetizer nibbles: nachos, cheese quesadillas and such. And if you are foolish enough to pass over the squid and ceviche tostada, the $8 assortment of tamales, mini-chimis, taquitos and tostadas will make a large and pleasant dent in four appetites.

Washing down south-of-the-border munchies with a cold Mexican brew is one of life's great pleasures, and I'd certainly never suggest you forgo the opportunity. But if the drinks and nibbles prevent you from filling up on maybe the best shrimp dish in town, I'd advise caution.

Acapulco Bay's remarkable Camaron Azteca is worth jumping off a cliff for. It's made with lots of meaty Guaymas shrimp, cooked in a buttery tomato, onion and chile salsa, gilded with white cheese and zestily seasoned. It's served in a molcajete, a deep bowl made from basalt (lava rock) that's usually used in Mexico as a mortar. Here, the kitchen heats it in the oven and uses it as a hot plate instead. Once the shrimp, cheese and sauce are spooned in, they get volcanically hot and stay that way. This bubbling dish is as much fun to look at as it is to eat. As I write this, I'm practically getting goose bumps recalling my delight.

The other seafood fare doesn't deliver that kind of intensity, but for the most part it's appealingly prepared. The albondigas de camaron, shrimp dumpling soup, is a meal-in-a-bowl. This is the kind of soup my grandmother might have made, had she come from Mexico instead of Eastern Europe. The dumplings are big and firm, just the way I like them, and set in mild, chile-tinged broth. I wouldn't have minded a few more veggies in the mix, but this is only a quibble.

Two other shrimp dishes are also satisfying. Shrimp endiablados isn't quite as "devilishly" hot as I've had elsewhere in town, but it's still vigorously seasoned and multidimensionally flavorful. Crystal shrimp is more offbeat, a combination of shrimp, mushrooms, cheese, peppers and onions. And the kitchen has an interesting take on paella. This version features a mound of rice, packed with a variety of seafood.

If you're partial to fish, Acapulco Bay prepares whole and filleted rockfish in several styles. I'm partial to the huge filleted slab estilo Veracruz, freshened with onions, peppers and olives. When cooked in a bland salsa de vino, however, the fish doesn't have nearly the same oomph.

Two dishes need some sprucing up. The Seven Seas soup is well-stocked with shellfish. But the broth lacks briny energy. The crab chile relleno, meanwhile, is a dud, a flabby critter with only the barest hint of crab.

Acapulco Bay admirably fills a neglected restaurant niche. If you're looking for tasty, affordable seafood, it's a good place to drop your line.

Jalapeno Joe's Mexican Cafe, 5111 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 602-265-5551. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., seven days a week.

While I don't need all my digits to add up the number of local Mexican seafood restaurants, I'd need every one of my fingers and toes, as well as all of those in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, to count the number of gringo restaurants exactly like Jalapeno Joe's.

Up-and-running since January, Jalapeno Joe's can't expect to wow anyone with novelty. If it's going to thrive, it will have to be because of quality.

Sometimes that quality is there. Sometimes it isn't.
You have to be impressed, though, with the way the place looks. The main dining room has a pair of fireplaces, tile floors and enough Mexican knickknacks to stock a Nogales tourist market. Your Midwestern relatives will get a kick out of it.

The appetizers, however, may make them squirm. Do we really need another Mexican restaurant serving out-of-the-freezer-bag jalapeno poppers? The kitchen's own appetizer efforts aren't much more distinguished. The chile con queso dip could be mistaken for cheese soup. This dip is so thin and watery that it rolled off the chips. Someone needs to rework the formula. The cutesy-sounding "Quesapilla de Joe's" is another loser, a stale, bready sopaipilla snoozily filled with cheese and coated with sauce.

On the other hand, except for the spelling, Jalapeno Joe's gets the chicken cosido (sic) exactly right. It's a wonderful soup, with big hunks of white-meat poultry and thick-cut veggies swimming in a chile-accented broth.

The main dishes are hit-or-miss. When the kitchen is on, the results can be impressive. That's certainly the case with the del mar flautas, a clever redesign of traditional fare. They're crispy tortillas, rolled and thickly stuffed with fish, then lined with an eye-catching basil cilantro sauce.

Pork picado is also deftly fashioned. Tender, diced pork is temptingly seasoned, and teamed with chiles, onions and jack cheese. Spinach enchiladas are another highlight, smoothed with a subtle white cheese sauce. The tomatillo burro, filled with hearty shredded beef, gets a lift from a vibrant tomatillo salsa. And the crisp, crunchy chimichanga pushes all the right buttons. I got the version filled with lusty red chile beef and heaped with fresh guacamole and sour cream. I wouldn't order this the night before my annual physical, but I'd eat it any other day of the year.

When the kitchen is off, however, the results can be painful. The cheese enchilada is a gloppy, tasteless mess. The mushroom enchilada is strictly one-dimensional. The tamales are way too dry, with a texture suggesting they've been sitting around for a while. The eggy chile relleno is too generic--no bite, no taste. And the Cancun shrimp plate is a disappointment: five forgettable, bacon-wrapped crustaceans that could cure insomnia.

Fajitas don't fall into the "hit" or "miss" category. They're solidly mediocre: chicken, shrimp or beef sizzled on an iron skillet, adorned with chiles, onions and tomato, and accompanied by the usual add-ons.

Jalapeno Joe's is no destination spot--there are probably a dozen restaurants in your neighborhood exactly like it. If it is in your neighborhood, well, now there are thirteen.

Acapulco Bay Co.:
Calamar frito
$7.00
Albondigas de camaron
10.00
Fish Veracruz-style
12.00

Jalapeno Joe's Mexican Cafe:
Red chile chimichanga
$6.75
Del mar flautas
8.75
Pork picado
8.95

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