Lunch Mob

Cafe Express, 2525 East Camelback (Shops at the Esplanade), Phoenix, 602-522-9199. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.

Self-service restaurants have never had much of a culinary reputation. Who can think of cafeterias without recalling the dreaded high school lunch hour? Remember reluctantly pushing a tray down the line, while scowling women dished out piles of mystery glop on your plate? Fast-food places don't conjure up any brighter eating memories, either. After all, it's hard to get worked up over a greasy burger that is first grilled by a pimply adolescent, then rung up by another, who needs a cash register with a Pentium processor to make change for a $1.99 purchase after you hand him two dollars.

Along with tasty fare, decor and atmosphere are two other dining elements likely to be missing from the self-service scene, unless you believe ketchup packets, light-weight cutlery and fellow patrons who linger over a cup of coffee for eight to 10 hours enhance the eating-out experience.

Quick bite: Fast food goes upscale at Cafe Express.
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Quick bite: Fast food goes upscale at Cafe Express.

Details

Gazpacho (bowl)
$2.75
Vegetable sandwich
5.45
Apple tartlet
2.95

City Hall Grill:
Albóndigas soup
$1.49
Chili and cornbread
1.95
Chocolate meringue pie
1.25

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No, self-service restaurants aren't about gastronomy, design or ambiance: They're about cheap and fast. At least, some of them are. The new Cafe Express is trying to reimagine the concept. At City Hall Grill, however, they don't believe in messing with tradition.

Cafe Express is the brain child of Robert Del Grande, a James Beard Award-winning chef from Houston, whose Cafe Annie is a foodie destination spot. About 15 years ago, convinced that the mass market was willing to pay a bit more for higher-quality food teamed with self-service convenience, he opened the first Cafe Express. In 1995, Nation's Restaurant News, which covers the restaurant business, proclaimed it one of the industry's "Hot Concepts." Now, Del Grande oversees a dozen units, 11 in Texas. The Phoenix outlet is the first out-of-state venture, and I hear others are in the works.

Management chose the Valley location with care. The upscale Esplanade is surrounded by offices, bringing in the lunchtime trade, while the cinema complex should attract customers at night. There may be spillover, as well, from the Ritz-Carlton next door and the Biltmore Fashion Park crowd across the street.

Inside, the airy room looks pretty spare. A few metal stars are hung on otherwise bare walls. Televisions over the small bar are tuned to sports stations. The most striking element: the "Oasis Table." That's what the company calls the big condiment island that sets Cafe Express apart from other players in the self-service market. It's impressive, all right, stocked with extra-virgin olive oil, infused oils, sherry vinegar, balsamic vinegar, several hot sauces, three kinds of mustard, ketchup bottles and huge jars of capers, Cornichons, pickles, olives, pickled peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and grated cheese. The idea, of course, is for people to goose up the all-day menu of salads, sandwiches, burgers, pasta and chicken with some of the fixings.

The ordering drill is familiar enough. After you've looked over the menu display overhead, tell the counter staff what you want. They'll give you a thingamahooky that lights up and vibrates when your food is ready. Because everything is made to order, it may take a few minutes. But that's all: Even at peak hours, this efficient kitchen had everything out within five minutes.

Cafe Express promises "Great Food Fast." Though it certainly delivers on the "fast" part of the equation, the "great" part is still a work in progress. A lot of the fare here doesn't get beyond ordinary.

One special, shrimp campechena, couldn't even get within hailing distance of ordinary. If you have visions, as I did, of a briny-fresh Mexican seafood cocktail, zipped up with cilantro, lime, onion and cucumber, get them out of your head. This lackluster model featured a bit of tasteless, cut-up shrimp and a couple of pieces of avocado in a horrible sauce that reminded me of chile-spiked ketchup. Back to the drawing board.

Soups, on the other hand, are a fine way to start off a meal. No, the chicken soup can't compare with Grandma's -- Grandma knew that dill and pepper are essential seasonings. But at least the flavor comes from a satisfying mix of shredded chicken, veggies and rice, not salt. The energetic gazpacho, meanwhile, has no defects. It's put together with chunky bits of celery, green and red pepper, carrot and zucchini, and "heated," so to speak, with serrano chile and Tabasco. This refreshing gazpacho has real bite, and I enjoyed biting back.

Along with soup, pasta is what Cafe Express does best. Cavatelli comes tossed with broccoli, mushrooms and goat cheese, and gets a noticeable boost from a sprinkling of garlic, parsley and bacon. Rigatoni features portabella mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes and a near-invisible touch of sausage. Fettuccine in a robust pesto sauce also hits the right buttons. And since the pasta portions aren't terribly generous, it's helpful that a side of house salad comes along to fill in the appetite cracks. That same salad also supplements the tasty but smallish quiche, fashioned with broccoli, mushroom and cheese.

Two chicken entrees adequately satisfy whatever urges you have for poultry. You can get a roasted half-bird or a surprisingly juicy grilled breast, lightly brushed with olive oil, lemon and pesto.

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