Waiting for Gourmet

Valley diners search for variety

Since the Arizona Center opened in 1990, Valley diners have been poised, fork and knife grasped firmly in hand, waiting to pounce on the many culinary wonders promised by downtown's then-developers and politicos. Coupled with the Mercado, the center was to attract celebrated restaurants and breathe new culture into the faded neighborhood.A decade later, we're still waiting. Even after the arrival of Bank One Ballpark, America West Arena and well-attended venues like Herberger Theater Center, we've got plenty of chain and sports concept eateries, but unique restaurants are few and far between.

As a frequent guest at downtown events, I eat elsewhere before arriving. Sorry, Hooters, Players Bar and Grill, Majerle's and Alice Cooper'stown -- I simply don't need to choke down yet another self-consciously fancy burger and fries. Other than scarfing a gourmet pizza at Pizzeria Bianco, I'd rather starve.

So I'm thrilled to see the arrival of Chary's Place/Habana Secreta, and to hear about the possible return of Norman Fierros to our central burg's dining scene (see next item). The downtown core has been curiously devoid of authentic ethnic eating -- Sing High and the Matador historically have been our best choices. But Sing High, while much-loved as the oldest restaurant in Phoenix, offers Chinese-American fare like chop suey, chow mein, sweet-and-sour dishes and fried rice. And the Matador, recently recovered from a grease fire earlier this year that closed its kitchen, serves Mexican-American that's as bland as it was the day it opened in 1976.

Chary's, though, owned by Chary Castro (a native of Cuba) and Carlos Olamendi, opened a few months ago at Central and Adams to tempt us with some very tasty Cuban food. It serves dinner, too, with a bonus of live Latin music on Friday nights. Its traditional dishes include Cuban sandwiches, mango salad, croquetas and, my favorite, picadillo.

We need variety like this downtown -- let's hope the dining public gives Chary's the support it deserves.

Meanwhile, it seems Valley diners aren't ready for good, white-cloth restaurants downtown, either; a couple have recently closed up shop.

I had such hopes when the very nice Ah-So Japanese opened at Central and Adams a couple of years back, but wasn't terribly surprised to arrive for dinner one evening (after making reservations, no less) to find the place boarded up.

Now Milano's, a mid-level Italian eatery housed in the San Carlos Hotel at Central and Monroe, is the latest in a series of casualties. It closed several weeks ago because of low revenues, a San Carlos staffer tells me. That restaurant space has become pretty much a revolving door. Earlier, it was occupied by Il San Carlino, another so-so Italian place that closed in 1996, only to be taken over by the ill-fated Nick's on Central, which shuttered after the restaurateur stopped making rent payments just a year into business.

The location has such potential. Here's a plea to our Valley chef-artists -- will anyone step up to the plate and bring us an upscale jewel in downtown Phoenix?

Stormin' Norman: Okay, so it's not really downtown but it's pretty darn close -- and with such slim pickings around the ballpark, I'll take anything I can get. Norman Fierros' new venture (tentatively called Norman's Barrio) is planned for somewhere near Encanto Park, Fierros says. Wherever it lands, count me in for this fabulous, creative food.

The 100-plus-seat eatery will showcase lighter, "heat resistant" versions of his nueva mexicana dishes -- the handmade tamales, campechana, soft fish tacos, chocolate chimis and such -- that have won him praise in big-time pubs like the New York Times and Bon Appétit. This, he tells me, will be food developed in response to the "it's too hot to eat -- but I want something extraordinary anyway" reality of living in the West.

And Norman himself -- what can I say? This guy is a leader in unique downtown dining experiences. The chef has become practically an urban legend since landing here in 1980 to run Fina Cocina, a combo taco stand and art gallery located next to a drug halfway house near Central and Adams. In between catering ventures, Fierros has operated several other well-received but truly funky restaurants: Chata's at Central and Camelback, La Pila at Central and Palm, and his current creation: the critically acclaimed Norman's Arizona at 40th Street and Campbell (look for a new addition here, too, with an alfresco seafood concept planned to open in September).

Fierros is an offbeat celebrity for sure, disappearing frequently, then popping back up with new concepts. But he's truly talented, and was one of the first Valley chefs to knock us off our feet with exciting fusion creations.

A 20-year resident of Phoenix's historic Willo district, he's gnashing his teeth in anticipation of a return to his true 'hood, he says. After moving to Phoenix to take over his sister's Fina Cocina, he fell in love with the area, he says. And now that downtown's empty lots are being filled in with residential units, he thinks the time has finally come for Valley chefs to take a serious look at the area.

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