Oeste Side Story

In another restaurant, the enchiladas might be the stars of the show. Here, they're only supporting players. Both the cheese and chicken models are thick and flavorful, and they're draped with a tomatillo sauce that will keep you engaged until the last bite.

If you're into packing animal protein, go for the top sirloin. The kitchen has secured access to high-quality cattle, and the beef is tantalizingly seasoned with lemon and pepper.

I'm even impressed with the chicken. Madera Grille's bird can fly. It's marinated in olive oil, garlic and spices, then grilled over mesquite flames. The interior is moist and succulent, while the skin, beautifully crisp and fragrant, makes nutritional guidelines easy to ignore.

Mex mix: A fiesta of Mexican fare at the Madera Grille.
Mex mix: A fiesta of Mexican fare at the Madera Grille.

The one ordinary item? It's the vestida, a pork chop whose luscious pasilla chile sauce and coating of Chihuahua cheese can't disguise the chewy meat.

The kitchen pays as much attention to the go-withs as it does to everything else. The rice is first-rate, and the beans -- soupy whole pintos topped with queso fresco -- are even better.

There's even an effort to do something with dessert. The flan is very rich, with lots of burnt sugar snap. And the intense chocolate cake puts a heavy exclamation point on the meal.

I admire Madera Grille's courage, setting up on the west side. Let's hope the neighborhood has the sense to take advantage of its good fortune.

Vallarta's Mexican Grill & Seafood, 2030 West Camelback, Phoenix, 602-242-8559. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.

I never have trouble kick-starting my appetite when it's time to eat Mexican seafood. It doesn't take much to get me fantasizing about retiring to Rocky Point, surrounded by seafood cocktails, seven seas stew and fish in Veracruz sauce.

You can't exactly see the sea gulls wheeling overhead or watch the boats pull into port at Vallarta's. But you might plausibly pretend you can.

About six months old, this tidy place, draped with red, white and green streamers, dishes out commendable south-of-the-border aquatic fare.

Catch up on Spanish-language soap operas on the two televisions that are constantly in use, while you munch fresh crispy chips and sip an icy Mexican brew.

They'll help pass the time until you dig into one of Vallarta's seafood cocktails, served in bowls filled with a sea of tomato broth. Best of the bunch is the coctel de ceviche, fashioned from cooked diced shrimp brightened with cilantro, lemon and cucumber. It has just a bit more energy than the campechana model, which offers a mild mix of shrimp, octopus, clams and oysters.

It's easy to drop your line on the menu. Just look for the cod or shrimp dish that has the word "Vallarta" immediately after. It describes the house special sauce, which will smack you upside the head with flavor. The kitchen uses a heady mix of butter, lemon, garlic and a substantial dose of tequila. The result is extremely rich and extremely tasty.

Culichi is another word to keep an eye out for. It means your seafood will come smothered in a tangy tomatillo sauce, and smoothed with a layer of jack cheese.

If you like to see small beads of sweat form on your brow, opt for the camarones picosos. You get 10 medium shrimp (not "large," as the menu promises) sautéed in butter and covered with a spicy red chile that commands your attention. Those same beads take just a few moments longer to form if you choose the seven seas stew. This meal-in-a-bowl tosses together shrimp, octopus, fish and crab in a chile-spiked broth, whose heat attacks your system after a couple of minutes.

The land-based dishes aren't nearly as compelling as the seafood. The mole has tempting sweet, spicy and bitter notes, but it's not as deep as Madera Grille's version. Nor is the chicken breast it's spooned on as tender as it ought to be. Enchiladas mixtas are simply three chicken enchiladas coated with three unremarkable sauces. Shredded beef tacos don't get beyond routine. And La Favorita, a sampler platter featuring a chile relleno, a tamale and beef gordita, won't create any lasting memories, either.

Sure, Phoenix is hundreds of miles from the sea. Still, when the kitchen focuses on the ocean, Vallarta's can feel like a day at the beach.

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