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When I heard that Kathleen Vanesian was reviewing "Stare," an exhibition of artist Chris Rush's work currently up at Mesa Contemporary Arts, I was eager to see what the fuss is about. I'll leave the art criticism to her, but I will say that Rush's luminous portraits were astonishing, thought-provoking, and touching all at once.
That, along with the other exhibitions on view, made for a satisfying jaunt to downtown Mesa. It's world-class art in a cool, cutting-edge setting (if you haven't been to Mesa Arts Center, don't wait another minute), something that would be a triumph in any downtown, anywhere.
Inevitably, my stomach started to growl, and I started thinking about the dining options nearby. This exciting art and performance venue deserves to have a suitably stellar restaurant or two in its orbit, although right now, there's still a disconnect. A stretch of small, independent eateries, interspersed with shops and empty storefronts along Main Street, may not lure you on its own, but it will at least help you stave off hunger.
270 W. Main St.
Mesa, AZ 85201
Il Vinaio (270 W. Main St., 480-649-6476) is the most sophisticated of the lot. Although it's got a relaxed atmosphere where jeans and sneakers wouldn't be completely inappropriate, this is one spot where you could go for a classy date, a glass of wine with a friend, or a family dinner.
Chef Patrick Boll, a culinary talent who made his name at a variety of Scottsdale restaurants (including many years at Roaring Fork with chef Robert McGrath), cooks up accessible, Mediterranean-inspired fare that pairs well with wine or beer.
On a recent visit, I enjoyed a Caprese salad of fresh, milky mozzarella with ripe tomatoes, basil, and sweet balsamic, a simple bowl of angel hair pasta tossed with tomatoes, basil, Parmesan, and loads of garlic, and mouthwatering chicken piccata. The bird was succulent beneath golden fried batter, smothered in a tomato sauce with green olives, mushrooms, and fried capers. Hidden underneath was a heap of buttery mashed potatoes, as well as fresh broccolini.
A couple of blocks away, De La Cruz Bistro (10 W. Main St., 480-258-6942) features contemporary American dishes with a meat-and-potatoes focus, such as grilled lamb chops with baked red-skinned potatoes, or rib eye with garlic mashed potatoes. This would also be a good choice if you're game for a leisurely sit-down meal.
The same folks who run De La Cruz Bistro are behind the long-running Mangos Mexican Café (44 W. Main St., 480-464-5700), an excellent, no-frills pit stop for quesadillas, burros, fajitas, flavorful carne asada, and tortas tucked into soft, lightly grilled buns. Order at the counter and take a number, then grab a table and dig in to hot, crispy tortilla chips and addicting homemade salsa. And be prepared to drink all the tasty horchata you can handle.
Across the street, Nunthaporn's Thai Cuisine (17 E. Main St., 480-649-6140) brings exotic Asian flavors to the neighborhood. I loved Nunthaporn's distinctive peanut sauce — unlike many versions around town, this did not remind me of peanut butter — and tangy, lightly spicy lime sauce served with the pra rham (steamed sliced chicken and vegetables). Tender chunks of eggplant, sautéed with basil, garlic, and soy sauce, were also delicious.
While the atmosphere has that soothing Thai charm, the service is just as relaxed (read: slow) — something to keep in mind when you make plans for a bite before a scheduled performance.
Incredibly, there are two Italian pizza places practically facing each other on Main Street, but each one offers something a little different.
Queens Pizzeria & Café (125 W. Main St., 480-964-1609) is like a quintessential East Coast pizza and sub shop, with hand-tossed New York-style pizza, calzones, Buffalo wings, and 11 kinds of hoagies on homemade rolls, from chicken parmesan with provolone, to the old-school "Royal Flush" sandwich, with salami, prosciutto, cappicola, provolone, pepperoncinis, and oil and vinegar dressing.
Meanwhile, Cucina di Vita Italian Deli (124 W. Main St., 480-834-3898) brings a broader menu and a cozier atmosphere, complete with the smell of meatballs wafting out the front door. They have dinner hours on Mesa Arts Center event nights.
Along with a dozen different pizzas, Cucina di Vita is big on sandwiches — both traditional Italian panini and American-style sandwiches, such as chicken salad with cashews and pineapple on a croissant, or turkey, bacon, Jack cheese, tomato, and avocado ranch spread on toasted sourdough. You can also fill up on homemade soups, tortellini salad, and so on.
Last but not least is Inside the Bungalow, (48 N. Robson, 480-844-2353) a don't-miss café nestled in a restored historic house just off of Main Street. The front patio alone is worth a visit, thanks to a burbling fountain and glorious Hong Kong orchid trees covered in purple blooms this time of year.
Coffee and socializing are a big part of the appeal, but there's also a menu of light bites — tofu curry salad, chicken Waldorf sandwiches, pitas wrapped around hummus and veggies — and fresh pastries.
This smattering of charming, independent restaurants along Main Street isn't a fair match for the sophisticated art and performance offerings at the Mesa Arts Center, but it's a start.
And someday, who knows? The downtown Mesa culinary scene might really become a player.