Bahia Kino, 24 East Broadway, Phoenix, 243-9684. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week. Modern technology provides us Valley dwellers with lots of pleasure-enhancing marvels that nature neglected to furnish: cool summer nights, pay-per-view Suns games and an ample supply of seafood. Is the thermometer outside climbing to the surface temperature of Venus? We can take brisk, air-conditioned refuge inside. So what if the APS meter is spinning so fast that you can fall into a hypnotic trance trying to calculate next month's bill? America West Arena sold out? We can still watch our team play ball on pay-cable television. So what if it's a lackluster regular-season game against an inferior opponent?
Is the nearest body of salt water hundreds of miles away? No problem--we can still fly in fish from the farthest corners of the globe. So what if it generally greets us as a dull, ineptly prepared slab on a restaurant plate?
The most interesting seafood dishes, I'm convinced, are not served at typical seafood restaurants, the kind with "buoys" and "gulls" rest rooms and enough nautical equipment hanging from the walls to outfit the Pequod. Instead, the best-tasting fish often shows up in ethnic joints or kitchens featuring some sort of regional fare. Anyone who's ever sampled bouillabaisse, sushi or gefilte fish knows what I mean. I put this insight to the test at Bahia Kino, a new South Phoenix Mexican seafood place where you don't find burros, tamales or a chile relleno-chimichanga combo plate on the menu. If it doesn't swim, it's not here. You won't get any piscatory thrills from the decor. The whitewashed walls are lined with framed, street-corner art. A reproduction of Leonardo's "The Last Supper" is a happy exception, although a somewhat disconcerting one for superstitious restaurant patrons. Bahia Kino avoids the dreary Basic Joint atmosphere through bright, fluorescent lighting, flowers on the oilcloth-draped tables and sheer authenticity: We were the only gringos here. If you don't speak Spanish, be prepared to do a lot of pointing at the bilingual menu when the friendly young waitresses take your order. And as a sort of festive bonus, you're likely to encounter strolling mariachis, who spend their evenings wandering in and out of South Phoenix's Mexican restaurants. We got our money's worth--$5 a song--from the three talented musicians who entertained us. Of course, it's easy to be generous with mariachi money when most of the restaurant's substantial dishes top out at less than eight bucks. And it's even easier to be in a generous mood when they taste so good.
Meals start off with a basket of fresh chips and a fiery salsa that hasn't been tempered for gringo palates. But the best way to prepare your taste buds for Mexican seafood entrees is to treat them to Mexican seafood appetizers. At Bahia Kino, that means wonderful seafood cocktails, served in "chico" and "grande" portions. The small size should be plenty for two. Ceviche, bits of shrimp and fish "cooked" with lime juice and seasoned with cilantro, onions, tomato and cucumber, was a perky delight. And the first-rate octopus was tender enough to yield to only gentle chewing. Scoop up either cocktail with a tablespoon, or spread it across fried corn tortillas. The main dishes sport a simple, unmistakable, south-of-the-border taste. The recipe for the whole fried fish in garlic sauce, for example, isn't very complex: Take one tilapia, a popular, bony, white-meat, farm-raised fish; dip it in bubbling oil until cooked and crusted; and smother with onions and garlic. It's not for the squeamish--lots of bones and intrusive body parts make unearthing the moist flesh a difficult, time-consuming process. But it's satisfying, in a primal way. If you prefer fish in a state not quite so close to nature, the filete de pescado Veracruzano is a terrific alternative. A big, meaty fillet comes drenched in a flavorful, but not spicy, sauce of olives, tomatoes and onions. This may be one of the best $8.50 fish plates in the Valley. Want to light a fire in the belly? Try the shrimp endiablado as kindling. It's a generous portion showcasing a dozen firm crustaceans in a "devilishly" slow-working, hot chile sauce. You may eat three or four creatures before feeling the effects, but by the time I downed the last shrimp, I was trying to massage my insides from the outside. All the main dishes fill in the cracks with a bit of salad, routine beans, pleasing, pea-flecked rice and steaming flour tortillas. If you're looking for something to take the sting out of a chilly winter evening, opt for the lovely fish stews, meals in a bowl. The seven seas version comes stocked with shrimp, scallops, octopus, squid, a bit of crab and a single clam. They swim in an appealingly briny broth made even more fragrant from infusions of onion, celery and green pepper. And incorrigible diners who refuse to eat Mexican food that doesn't come stuffed in a tortilla shell can find solace in the fish tacos. Marinated, minced fish occupies two crispy corn tortillas, accompanied by a thick mound of guacamole.
Bahia Kino is hardly a destination spot for diners seeking romance, elegance or cooking-school gastronomy. But adventurous couples looking for well-prepared ethnic seafood and change back from a twenty will find that Bahia Kino's neon lights are bright on Broadway. Cajun Connection Cafe, 7101 East Thunderbird, Scottsdale, 948-4545. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.
"People," sang out a waitress to the kitchen crew, as we entered the Cajun Connection at 7 o'clock on a recent Saturday night. We were the evening's first customers, and even two hours later, only two other tables and three barstools were occupied. The place sports the usual Mardi Gras look: gimcracks and gewgaws from New Orleans' annual bacchanalia and an eclectic collection of framed posters. But we weren't here to get vicarious thrills from Louisiana mementos. We came to feast on the region's famed seafood--oysters, shrimp, catfish, crayfish--prepared in that distinctive Cajun style. I believe that this fare is American regional cuisine at its finest--rich, almost elegant in a homespun way and bursting with flavor. But Cajun Connection never quite masters the possibilities. It's generally the little things that keep the food from soaring. The oyster brochette starter features battered, fried critters wrapped with bacon. Sounds like a wonderful combination, we thought. But undercooked, fatty bacon made chewing unpleasant, and swallowing a chore. Fortunately, when we turned to land-based appetizers, our mood improved. The crunchy, homemade onion rings, made from sweet red onions, turned out to be a superior appetizer option. The line between "mild" and "bland" is hard to pinpoint with certainty. But Cajun Connection's seafood seems to have stepped over it. It's not that the main dishes fail to give diners some degree of pleasure--they do. But none really sparkles, either. Everything seemed to need a little more oomph. Take the shrimp Lafayette, for example. The four shrimp accompanying the plateful of fettuccine come so pounded and flattened that they're thin enough to slide under a door. And once they're breaded and fried, the shrimp flavor and texture virtually disappear. This is not the kind of preparation that gave Gulf shrimp its reputation. The tasty, garlic brown roux tossed over the noodles couldn't pick up all the slack. Crayfish ‚touff‚e, a bayou specialty, features succulent Louisiana freshwater crustaceans bathed in a light roux. There have been times when I've had this dish and actually contemplated a move to the state's mosquito- and alligator-infested swamps. This, however, wasn't one of them. Crayfish ‚touff‚e can be too luscious to come out of the kitchen merely routinely good. Blackened catfish, a moist slab seared with Cajun spices, had a bit more of the regional kick that we had been searching for. But while the catfish is certainly worth finishing, it's not the sort of dish that you're likely to remember an hour later. And that quality seems to be Cajun Connection's principal deficiency: Nothing's memorable. Cajun staples like the cornmeal-battered oyster po-boy are pleasing enough, but hardly worth a special trip. Same with other Cajun highlights. The gumbo is thin, and I couldn't spot any of the promised chicken or sausage. Red beans and rice had no peppery punch. Neither did the jambalaya. Yet, strangely enough, the homemade desserts are absolutely first-rate. These are worth an excursion. Cheesecake is scrumptious, a rich, creamy treat. Thick bread pudding is soaked with enough whiskey to require an ID check. The warm carrot cake is moist, without the cloying sweetness that ruins most versions. And the chocolate amaretto mousse will make you understand why the English language needs a word like "chocoholic." Why is it that with the main dishes before us, we picked, nibbled and talked, while once the sweets were set down, we enthusiastically attacked in silence? When Cajun Connection comes up with the answer, we'll be back. @7col:Bahia Kino: Small ceviche $4.00 Whole fish in garlic sauce 8.95 Shrimp endiablado
7.85 Seven seas stew 7.85 Cajun Connection Cafe: Oyster brochette $6.50 Blackened catfish 11.95 Crayfish ‚touff‚e 13.95 Bread pudding 2.95
JOE ARPAIO'S TENT CITY... v1-20-94
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