Beyond the Lunchpail

Chez Bubbas Caribbean and Creole House, 801 North First Street, Phoenix, 254-0040. Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

You don't need to see the new multiplex-cinema construction at Arizona Center, the new apartment complexes filling in the empty lots north of Van Buren, the newly restored Orpheum Theatre, the new Arizona Science Center or the massive new Bank One Ballpark looming over Seventh Street to realize that downtown is verging on becoming a happening location.

That's because the first wave of new eating spots has already hit the area, poised to take immediate advantage of a rejuvenated urban core. Savvy owners know the new downtown will draw swarms of people who rarely ventured this way before. And those folks will need to be fed--workers and tourists by day; sports fans, theater patrons and moviegoers by night. I'm no business forecaster, but I suspect restaurant cash registers will be ringing like a slot tournament at a Vegas casino.

Right now, the downtown lunch bunch is in especially good shape. It deserves it. When I moved here eight years ago, not even the sandwich chains and national fast-food operators, who otherwise already seemed to infest every other square foot of Maricopa County, could be tempted to open a branch in this forsaken part of town. If you wanted a reliable lunch in those days, you had to pack it in a brown bag yourself.

Not anymore. The variety and quality of the noontime options now make the prospect of a downtown job far more promising than it used to be.

At first glance, lunch-only Chez Bubbas Caribbean and Creole House looks untouched by urban renewal, the kind of place you'd cross the street to keep from passing. Set in a corner of downtown that hasn't yet been rejuvenated, its only discernible charm, from the outside, is strictly a low-rent one.

Inside, however, it's a completely different story. This quirky place oozes with charm and homey congeniality. The delightful mom-and-pop proprietors set the tone. His domain is the counter, where he thrusts menus at first-timers, takes orders, adds up prices on a pocket calculator and makes correct change. He's a big, affable Long Islander of Jamaican and Native American descent, with remarkable conversational gifts.

And he's certainly smart enough to let his gracious wife run the kitchen. On one visit, when my order got backed up, she saw I was on the brink of starvation. So she brought out some gratis fare to tide me over until lunch was ready. Their son also helps out, a polite young man who actually follows his parents' commands without any noticeable resentment. I may have to return here, if only to gather some child-raising tips.

Chez Bubbas' greatest asset, however, is the fare, a melange of Southern, Caribbean and Louisiana cooking. Once you've put these dishes under your belt, that lunchtime burger, rice bowl or tuna fish sandwich is going to look pretty tame.

What accounts for Chez Bubbas' culinary prowess? Every platter tastes like someone enjoyed preparing it. This is homemade fare, in the best sense of the word.

It's not unsophisticated fare, either. Take a frequent special, crab thermidor, two crustaceans stuffed with shrimp and breading. At $3.85, it's a good nosh to share. So are the Jamaican meat patties, fresh pasties filled with Island-spiced ground beef.

Sandwiches, prepared with pita bread, have real character. The curried-chicken model is particularly splendid, featuring lots of zestily seasoned poultry. The seafood version, which teams crab and shrimp, actually tastes like real seafood.

The flavor jumps out at you from everywhere. Jambalaya is first-rate, rice, shrimp and sausage tossed together with real flair. Feeling flush? On those days when Bubba meets the fleet, he puts together a nifty lobster creole. You get a big hero roll loaded with a spicy creole mix of fish, topped with a lobster claw. At $5.95, it's the most expensive lunch here.

Regulars, however, know that Chez Bubbas' single best lunch dish is the off-the-menu blackened fish. The cook uses orange roughy, which she somehow manages to keep moist while searing it in Cajun spices, then pairs it with rice and beans. The prospect of eating this exceptional platter at noon will make your morning work hours much more tolerable. But make sure you take an early lunch--the kitchen often runs out.

If it does, the peppered shrimp furnish a happy alternative, lots of oily, pungent crustaceans irresistibly paired with a mound of mayo-saturated potato salad. If your cholesterol level can't handle this kind of hit, the zesty chicken creole will satisfy your taste buds without medical incident.

If the boss doesn't mind your taking a short afternoon nap, Chez Bubbas' marvelous desserts will send you back to work in the right frame of mind. The sweet-potato pie, drenched in a potent whiskey sauce, is stupendous. The rich, moist, spirit-filled black rum cake--"a 300-year-old recipe," claims the proprietor--is, if possible, even better. Wash down everything with refreshing, sugar-laden homemade lemonade.  

A few caveats, for the finicky: Chez Bubbas is a small place, with just three tables and five counter seats. At prime lunch hours, you may have to wait, both for a seat and your food. It remains to be seen whether the air-conditioning system can make it through a Phoenix summer. Don't count on being informed of the daily specials. Don't have your heart set on finding one particular dish the day you come. Don't be a close-mouthed sourpuss. And bring cash.

But if you can handle the risks, you'll reap the rewards. And the rewards at Chez Bubbas are substantial--good conversation, marvelous food and low prices. That's what I call hitting the lunchtime trifecta.

Ah-So, 40 North Central, Phoenix, 229-1177. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 4:30 to 9 p.m.

If Chez Bubbas' proletarian setting is too downscale for your noontime break, consider passing your lunch hour at Ah-So. It's the new downtown branch of a popular west-side Japanese restaurant. The proprietor correctly figured that there was an empty Asian-food niche here ripe for exploitation, and Ah-So has quickly exploited it. The place is pretty full throughout the lunch hour; if you march in at 12:15 without a reservation, be prepared to wait.

As you might imagine, Ah-So's full-service restaurant lunch appeals mostly to the jacket-and-tie, tailored-outfit crowd. That's because Japanese fare tends to be somewhat pricey once you move out of fast-food territory. But management has done a good job keeping down lunchtime prices: Almost everything is under 10 bucks, and the $5.95-to-$7.95 range of many dishes is a range most of us can be at home on, at least occasionally.

Part of Ah-So's appeal is the setting. It's very pretty. The main dining room features lots of sleek, polished wood. Windows overlook a shady square next to office towers. According to my ladies' room informants, the women's rest room harbors a bidet, undoubtedly a downtown first. The jarring canned music, however, needs to go.

Most folks don't want culinary adventure at lunchtime, and Ah-So's Japanese staples aren't going to scare away anyone. The most exotic menu item is the broiled yellowtail cheek appetizer. It's quite tasty, a substantial hunk of lightly cooked fish that you tweeze off the bone with your chopsticks and dip into a mild sauce. At the other end of the risk scale is the yakitori, two small, lackluster skewers supporting small amounts of glazed poultry and scallions. If you're looking for an appetizer nibble that your whole group can agree on, order the gyoza, five crisp, fresh-fried meat dumplings.

If you've spent your morning on a Bank One Ballpark construction crew, it's unlikely Ah-So's light, Japanese main-dish fare will make much of a dent in your appetite. But if, like most of the office people here, you've spent the previous several hours shuffling papers and staring at a computer screen, you can get enough fuel to get you through until the five o'clock bell.

Salad fanciers won't be loosening their belts, but the greenery here is deftly put together. The octopus salad brings lots of thick-cut, not-too-chewy octopus, peanuts, pickled eggplant and radish, all tossed with a lovely variety of mixed greens. A sprightly house salad dressing adds to the harmony. Ah-So beef combines tender, thin-sliced beef with broccoli and onion, served with rice and salad. The dish called seafood lover is similar, with a few shrimp and scallops substituting for the beef.

Chicken katsu is skillfully fashioned, a lightly breaded chicken breast fried and sliced. Dunking it in the fruity dipping sauce provides a tasty boost. In comparison, the special fried rice is a snooze, a lackluster mix of shrimp and chicken tossed together with institutional fried rice.

The best midday platter here is the tempura-sushi combo. A surprisingly hefty portion of shrimp and veggies--sweet potato, squash, potato--arrives fresh and lacily battered. It's teamed with a five-piece assortment of sushi that included tuna, shrimp, yellowtail, halibut and salmon. At $8.95, it's a good deal, especially once you factor in the miso soup that comes along.

While Ah-So's designer and kitchen generally have their acts together, the service department definitely needs some work. The miso soup and rice that were supposed to accompany the octopus salad never showed up; the waitress mistakenly said the octopus salad was squid, not octopus; it took repeated calls to get the sauces for the yellowtail and gyoza; the same persistence was necessary to get water and chopsticks; our orders got mixed up with another table's; prices on the bill differed from prices on the menu; we were charged for some things we didn't have, and not charged for items we did. And watch out for the hot green tea. It's served in a handleless cup that gets as hot as the liquid it holds. The only way to pick it up safely is to use a pair of tongs.  

Still, Ah-So brings lunchtime vigor to an area that sorely needed it. This isn't merely change; this is progress.

Chez Bubbas Caribbean and Creole House:
Jamaican meat patties
Curried chicken pita
Peppered shrimp
Blackened fish

Octopus salad
Chicken katsu
Seafood lover

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