Arty Appetite

I can do without the chicken salad sandwich ($5.75). It's skimpy, with large rings of raw white onion (yuck), corn, black beans, lettuce and tomato on a wheat roll. One time it arrives with its promised avocado, another time it doesn't. Somewhat runny, virtually pureed tuna salad ($5.75) is much better, thanks largely to its very fresh croissant and simple topping of American cheese.

The Ironwood's more creative sandwiches succeed, except that they're so refrigerated that it's difficult to appreciate their nuances. By my second visit, I'm bold enough to ask that my marinated beef pocket ($5.75) be popped in the microwave for 20 seconds. It's improved -- not cooked, just thawed a bit. Any enhancement helps this gyro-like creation of overdone beef strips (not shredded, as listed; shredding would better hide the poor meat) with raw green pepper strips and spirals of raw onion. I can't taste any of the promised hint of jalapeño marinade, but the outstanding pita bread is tasty enough to eat on its own.

Roast pork sandwich ($5.75), meanwhile, brings an ample serving of real piggy loin slabs on a soft onion roll spread with mild cilantro garlic mayonnaise. A quick zap in the microwave releases its flavors -- this is well-prepared meat. I particularly enjoy how the juices from a side of "Painted Desert" coleslaw soak into the bun -- the slaw's not too sweet or runny, just a crunchy tangle of moistened red cabbage and carrot.

Have you Heard? The museum's renovation includes the Ironwood Café.
Have you Heard? The museum's renovation includes the Ironwood Café.

But it's the high desert wrap ($6.75) that's the Ironwood Café's real art. It's pretty simple, with slightly chewy lamb, chopped green chiles, black beans, chunky tomato, shredded iceberg lettuce and red cabbage, corn and jicama all tucked in a flour tortilla. If only the kitchen could free it from the Antarctic that is their refrigerator.

Thai salad ($6.75) is another worthy diversion, a portrait of mandarin oranges and red grapes, centered by chopped peanuts and dry white albacore on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce and red cabbage. Tiny bits of cilantro and mint lend periodic whips of flavor, yet surely the kitchen has sent out the wrong dressing -- it's not at all spicy as advertised, but thin, sweet poppy seed. Perhaps they've confused it with the peanut dressing served with my Santa Fe salad ($6.75). This groovy blend has real kick, especially when brushed on the hearty portion of lime-marinated grilled chicken breast strips. This salad invites me back, with a blend of greens, diced pale tomato, black beans, jicama strips and Cheddar. Its only failing: tortilla strips that have been left to sit out in an open container and gone stale.

It's not a masterpiece, but the Ironwood Café certainly deserves a return engagement.

Art Museum Cafe, inside Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central, Phoenix, 602-257-2191. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Phoenix Art Museum (or PAM, as the hip folks call it), scored a major coup with its Monet exhibit last year. Suddenly, art was approachable -- it looked just like the postcards grandma sent when she finally took her dream vacation to Europe. The masses responded, well, en masse, and rewarded PAM with sellout crowds and record-breaking attendance.

If things don't improve at PAM's Art Museum Cafe, however, this overlooked restaurant may cause some culinary deprecation. I don't quite know what the trouble is. Local talent Eddie Matney tried to make a go of the place a few years back, calling it Eddie's Art Museum Cafe. It didn't work. Now, the Cafe is presented by Arizona Taste Catering Company, one of the Valley's finer groups. I've been to plenty of enjoyable events orchestrated by Arizona Taste and have never experienced the dreck that's being served inside this Cafe's green and gray walls.

The possibilities are there. The Cafe has an ample kitchen and a well-written menu. There's lots of seating with blond wood chairs, and it's soothingly quiet (keep it in mind for business lunches, folks, where talk is more important than food). Museum members even receive a small discount. It's fun to "sneak in" after being given a badge that shows we're too cheap to pay entry, but still peek at the art leading to the Cafe's entry.

But the inside is sterile, with views of an empty concrete courtyard. There are cloth napkins, but a single server must scurry between tables and cash register, often too busy to ask if we want dessert before dropping the check.

Nicoise salad ($8.25) is a nicety not often found on local menus. It's a yummy blend and good for you, too. But this albacore tuna has been slicked with mayonnaise, and someone has added nontraditional boiled red new potato. The rest is fine -- red onion, green beans, mixed greens, black olives, tomato, hard-boiled egg and bread chunks in a so-so garlic Dijon vinaigrette. Yet, my dining companion, a lover of entree salads, is unimpressed.

I can't forgive AZ Taste Caesar ($6.50) as easily -- its chicken breast add-on ($1 more) never should have made it to my plate. The pepper-studded bird is ruined by the flavor of refrigerated fat -- one strip is actually fat and gristle. It's too bad, because I like the Cafe's Southwestern Caesar dressing boosted with nutty Asiago cheese and the fluffy tortilla strips (think taco-salad shell). Chunks of eggy challah-like bread are marvelous.

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