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By the time you read this, chef Erasmo "Razz" Kamnitzer will be packing up his pots and pans and getting ready to shutter his eponymous Razz's restaurant as he does every summer. From May 20 to September 1, the popular eatery goes dark as Kamnitzer and his family take some well-deserved vacation time. It's a pretty gutsy move, given the Valley's increasingly competitive restaurant scene. It used to be that many popular eateries and resorts here took the sweltering summer months off -- there simply wasn't enough traffic to pay the bills. But today, Phoenix is a year-round town. Diners want to eat well even if they're melting puddles of goo under the Arizona sun; that's why God created air conditioning.
But even though, for a few months, we won't be able to feast on Kamnitzer's almond encrusted foie gras, black bean paella or veal sweetbreads, we can still get our Razz fix at Latino Express. Latino Express is Kamnitzer's new restaurant, which opened in February to little fanfare. As word gets out, though, this is going to be one spicy little hot spot. The concept is fun, with gourmet fast food served in a former Jack in the Box. Look carefully; it's tucked next to a Fred Meyer grocery store in the shadow of the Loop 101 Via Linda overpass.
The renovation is artfully uncomplicated: a few coats of gray and white paint on the walls, molding fancied up in burgundy, a burnished high-gloss order counter and the acoustical ceiling painted black. Patrons of Kamnitzer's upscale eatery will find the decor here familiar, with the same rich color tones, similar upholstery patterns and funky artwork, including a trio of colorful nude renditions and centerpiece portraits of Kamnitzer, his wife and two daughters.
Duck cakes $5.95
Brazilian Pasta $6.50
Pastel de Chocolate $2.50
Pick a seat: your choice of metal-topped bar tables with awkwardly proportioned stools (I keep falling off), traditional four-seaters or booths. Or, do as I do and take your party to the patio, where you can bop to the piped-in salsa music with fewer disturbing glares.
However simple the setting, Latino Express is no Razz in the Box. While certainly not diet food, this is a spectacular leap above everyday tray-to-table or drive-through choices. The few fried items are breathtakingly oil-free, and many dishes are clean combinations of fresh grilled meats, veggies, rice and beans in light sauces. Besides, where else in town can you get an order of ostrich steak and mofongo to go? Latino Express will even have liquor, listing Colombian beer plus Merlot, Chardonnay and rosé wine by the glass. (The liquor license hasn't been approved yet; anticipate another month's wait, and no, they won't serve alcohol at the drive-through.)
Call it Razz-a-licious. A Venezuelan native and seventh-generation chef, Kamnitzer draws on French, Southwestern, South American and Indonesian influences to create a fine-dining menu that is all over the map. At Latino Express, though, he's wisely focused on more manageable South American fare, including specialties of Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil. Even with exotic-sounding names like Anticucho, tostones and Pastelitos, many items are comfortable to the most timid palate.
When my dining companion and I visit one night, we bring with us the acid test of picky eaters: a gaggle of teenage girls. At 13, most kids aren't craving strange spicings and aggressive flavors. No problem here. After announcing that they will be sitting at a private table, thank you, the girls tuck quite contentedly into orders of that mystery Anticucho, tickled to find it's simply beef rubbed in a dry marinade, skewered and grilled to a wonderfully juicy turn. Onion marmalade gets pushed to the side, but I feel no guilt stealing their plates after they've run off to inspect the shops next door. It's a yummy tangle of thin, grilled onion strips tossed with garlic.
Arroz con Pollo is another safe choice, nothing more than good, grilled chicken breast served with black beans and fried rice. Asado de Pollo is pretty much the same stuff, with less rice and more chicken in a garlic chile sauce, and I think you can deduce what Asado de Carne is.
Much of Latino Express' menu is fashioned from the same ingredients, with varying marriages of meat, veggies and low-impact but delicious garlic chile sauce. All entrees come with Kamnitzer's black beans and rice. The rice is a disappointment, often watery and always pretty much tasteless, with all flavor provided by soft carrot, red and green pepper and red onion. But the beans -- ah, the black beans. Sweet and wet, their crisp black skin hides meaty cream-colored flesh and a musky aroma. They're cooked tender and resting in their own juices, spiked with bits of carrot and onion.
It's the basics that succeed the best. When my dining companion and I order anything with beef and chicken, we're guaranteed satisfaction. Some of the more adventurous dishes have trouble finding a home, however, as my companion and I slide plates back and forth to sample them.
Picadillo is a favorite in many Spanish-speaking countries, and Kamnitzer's version is one of the best locally, particularly for less than $7. Usually, Picadillo consists of ground pork, beef or veal, and sometimes is used as stuffing rather than an entree. There's no ground meat here, though, but large chunks of char-grilled chicken breast and beef. There's the ubiquitous carrot and onion, but there are also red-skin potatoes, deliciously tender spud sponges for the garlic chile sauce. It's a terrific dish.