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BY THE TIME I GOT TO TUCSON

Summer is never laid-back at New Times. Ever hard-core, during the hottest months of the year we leave the relative comfort of our offices to drive up, down and around the Valley. Our quest? To discover the Best of Phoenix--something you can judge as well (see Readers' Poll, page ??).

Obviously, long vacations for resident restaurant critics are out of the question. Far too many categories must be judged. But weekend excursions are permitted--and they are needed escapes from daily decisions.

Since I've never lived in Tucson, I find it refreshing to go down there for an occasional summer weekend. It's cooler, no one knows me there and, most important, the drive is short. Besides, it's pretty in Tucson. The sky looks powder blue, the desert pale pink and the architecture is both appealing and historic. Every year before I drive down, I pump for restaurant recommendations everyone who has ever lived, gone to school or stayed for extended periods in Tucson. Funny, I never get many leads: the former Wildcats I poll can't seem to put a name to their schoolday haunts. A fellow staffer who spent his wonder years in Tucson just plain wants to forget about it--good restaurants included. Luckily, one food-loving native pulls through with some solid suggestions for south-side Mexican joints. My weekend guest and I leave Phoenix on a recent Friday afternoon and pull into Tucson right before dinnertime. We check into our lodgings, take a dip in the pool, and then commence the serious business of consulting the Yellow Pages--under "R" for Restaurants. Within minutes I have a list of possibilities. Selamat Makan, Tucson's only Malaysian restaurant, is the obvious choice for Friday night. After all, this type of cuisine isn't available in Phoenix. We check our map, then head out to East Grant.

It turns out the family-owned restaurant is nestled in your basic Arizona strip mall. Inside, the plain interior is green with ficus, yucca and other living plants. The tropical jungle look? Or simply Seventies retro-hippie

decor? As it lists itself as both Malaysian and vegetarian in the "Restaurants by Category" section, I'd say Selamat Makan is trying for both looks. Our waitress is patient, caring and from Vermont. With her assistance we string some dishes into a meal. First up are vegetarian egg roll and vegetarian curried roll. Both are very hot, very fried and very boring. The potato-filled curried roll tastes incongruously of apples and cinnamon. The egg roll is mostly cabbage. Nasal-clearing Chinese mustard helps us cope with ennui.

So far, I'm not wowed. The rest of our meal doesn't change my initial impression. The fish in our curry-like sambal is grainy, formerly frozen cod. Though we ask to have our dish prepared "very hot," the sambal is strictly mild. Wait, I take that back. My weekend guest has found a slice of fresh jalapeno amid the onion, tomato and bell pepper. Whoa! Watch out, pardner, it's still got its seeds. Better cool off with some of that exotic rice topped with toasted coconut.

Chicken satay is pleasant, but hardly dazzling. We receive eight bamboo sticks of grilled chicken pieces coated in a peanut/pineapple sauce.

Archar, billed as pickled vegetables, is simply parboiled cucumber and carrot strips briefly marinated in vinegar and curry. They're not even close to being pickled.

My weekend guest is amazed by the chapati, an Indian flat bread. "It tastes like absolutely nothing," he insists. "Try it." I do, and promptly disagree. "It tastes like grease-soaked burnt spots," I assert. We both agree that it is thin, stiff and dull.

For dessert I elect to try the agar-agar. Now this is exotic: two inches of natural (gray) seaweed gelatin topped with a layer of creamed coconut and mashed banana, served in handy precut cubes stuck with toothpicks, no less. Yikes! I put one into my mouth and quickly realize this is a texture thing. The gelatin isn't Knox-smooth, it's kind of chewy. Maybe a little too chewy for me. I eat two, then stare dismally at the remaining eight cubes. My weekend guest does not volunteer to help me out. I don't blame him.

The Tucsonans at surrounding tables emit low murmurs of approval as they consume their meals. Apparently, mediocre food served on Corelle dinnerware is okay by them.

According to the menu, selamat makan means "enjoy dining" in Malay. I wish I had. Even great service couldn't save this meal.

After a morning of driving around, my weekend guest and I end up at Taco Azteca for lunch. Located across from Bookman's at the intersection of Campbell and Grant, tiny order-at-the-counter Taco Azteca achieves the rare distinction of being attractive and authentic. I love the funky feather- foil-paint-and-Christmas-tree-light mural and the untanned leather chairs.

 

I also love the food. It's Sonoran style and may be tinier than you're used to--but it is good. I'd go out on a limb to recommend almost anything here. You won't be disappointed as long as you keep the small scale in mind. I've visited Taco Azteca before, so we're eating light today. A birria taco served in a soft flour tortilla is shredded meat marinated in mild red chile sauce. A carne asada taco is likewise soft and features a generous amount of perfectly grilled bits of steak and shredded lettuce. A picadillo burro, petite and filled with ground beef and potatoes, is served with lemon-tinged guacamole punctuated with chips. This plate is so pretty, I begin to think of Taco Azteca's cuisine as Nouvelle Sonoran.

There is nothing hot about this food, not even the salsa, but I'm not complaining. The flavors are wonderful and subtle.

Think Bookman's (the largest newsstand and used book store in the state) and Taco Azteca would consider opening adjoining stores somewhere in the Valley? Probably not.

Our loss.

Saturday night's all right for fighting, but my weekend guest and I are still on good terms. We're ready to get a little action in at a new Vietnamese restaurant in north Tucson called Mekong Restaurant. You know me: I'm always up for Vietnamese food. Maybe you're sick of reading about it, but I'm not sick of eating it. I hope to convert some of you before I'm through.

Luckily for you, conversion doesn't necessitate a trip to Tucson. Mekong is just not up to Phoenix standards. This may be the only Vietnamese restaurant I've visited where I actually leave food behind. Besides, I don't like our hostess/ waitress, who may also be the owner. She is abrupt and bossy. She scowls at us a lot. When it's time for the check, she is busy chatting--and smiling, I might add--with a Vietnamese group that has just been seated. Her attitude is exceptional: I have never been treated with anything but extreme politeness and attentiveness at other Vietnamese restaurants. Perhaps Mekong's owner is a bad egg. Who knows?

What I do know is: I'm not impressed by the food here. Which is too bad, because Mekong might just be the prettiest Vietnamese restaurant I've run across in Arizona. Decidedly upscale in tone, it is decorated with red- and black-enameled screens and imitation inlaid tabletops. Even the chairs and booth upholstery are a cut above. Admittedly, we order more than we can eat. But of the four dishes we receive, I finish only one, bun cha gio. Mekong does it well: thin rice vermicelli, topped with chopped roasted peanuts and fried spring rolls, obscures a bottom layer of shredded lettuce, cucumber, mint, cilantro and bean sprouts. The whole bowl--noodles, greens and all--is nicely drenched in nuoc cham (sweet clear fish sauce). It is simply delectable.

Pho tai, rice noodle and rare beef soup, disappoints me in several ways. First, the beef is not rare. Second, the noodles are wider than I like. Third, as I've said before in describing Pho, one of the best things about it is the add-ins. Normally a whole plate of greenery, including bean sprouts, mint, lime, cilantro and sliced chiles, comes with it. You add what you like in the proportions you prefer. At Mekong, our soup arrives already doctored with a wedge of lime and some cilantro and bean sprouts tossed in it. Boo, hiss.

We ask our waitress for a bottle of Sriracha, the red chile-based hot sauce that stands sentinel on tables in most Vietnamese restaurants. We get the frown again. When she brings it--begrudgingly--she says, "Will this do?" I guess so, it's what we asked for.

Our last two dishes are simply mediocre. Goi Ga, cabbage and chicken salad, looks pretty enough, but the chicken is pink and dangerously underdone. Vegetables with soft noodles are tasty, but monotonous. Cafe Sua Da, the Vietnamese-style iced coffee I've raved about in previous columns, is good at Mekong. Thick, strong and mocha-y, I recommend it.

But that's about it. We have to stand at the register before our check is brought. Unless I'm desperate for a fix of coffee or cha gio, I won't bother returning next time I'm in town.

Happily, lunch on Sunday makes up for Saturday night. We drive south on Fourth Avenue to El Torero, one of the south-side restaurants recommended to us by our native Tucsonan friend with the active memory cells.

We pull into the sandy parking lot and walk inside. High ceilings and a bar that runs more than half the length of the spacious room remind me simultaneously of Mexico and the ubiquitous tavern of the Northeast. I like it.

 

There are only a couple of other occupied tables today. Our waitress brings us hot sauce and asks if we'd like chips or a cheese crisp. Reflexively, I answer "Chips," then slowly realize the meaning of her question. You guessed it: We will be charged for the chips (sixty cents). Shades of Rosita's Place.

We place our order and in minutes food begins piling out of the kitchen. Cheese and tortilla soup comes with the rest of the meal. (Note: The tortillas are not in the soup, but on the side.) Orange long horn cheddar cheese is mostly stuck to the bottom of the bowl, but the soup's flavor is quite nice. I'm content to spoon up potatoes, green chile strips and onions.

A green corn tamale is the fluffiest I've ever encountered. Maybe a little too fluffy for my taste--I like them dense and moist--but good nonetheless.

El Torero's great jukebox pleads with me to drop quarters into it. I can't resist. I leave my steaming hot food and select a few gems: some Dorsey, Miller, Dion, Lovin' Spoonful, Young Rascals, Beatles, and Frank, of course. I think I'd come back for the eclectic jukebox alone.

A cheese enchilada is nice and sour with its melted long horn cheddar filling. Beans at El Torero are smoky and pureed, similar to Carolina's. Guacamole is chunky and redolent with onions. A big platter of shrimp Veracruz is covered with a mildly spiced tomato sauce perked up with bell pepper and onion. All are good.

My weekend guest likes the chunky salsa ($1.75) so much he nearly finishes it off with our chips. I ask our waitress if we will be charged for a refill. "Shall I bring you another?" she queries evasively. "I want more," I counter, about to add, but not if I have to pay for it when she cuts me off. "I'll bring another," she says. Fortunately, when our bill comes, we are charged for only one order. I'm relieved, but I still don't like the type of indirectness at work here.

Otherwise, I love El Torero. I plan to make it a regular stop on my intermittent treks to Tucson, and I encourage you to do the same.

With that said, be sure to call ahead if you are planning to give any of these restaurants a try this summer. Many restaurants close for vacation in August.

Selamat Makan Restaurant, 3502 East Grant, Tucson, (602) 325-6755. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; 5 to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, Sunday; 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday.

Taco Azteca, 1911 East Grant, Tucson, (602) 327-4774. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

Mekong Restaurant, 6462 North Oracle, Tucson, (602) 575-9402. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday; noon to 9 p.m., Sunday.

El Torero Restaurant, 231 East 26th Street, Tucson, (602) 622-9534. Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight, closed Tuesdays.

I pump for restaurant recommendations everyone who has ever lived, gone to school or stayed for any time in Tucson. I never get many leads.

I don't like our hostess/waitress, who may also be the owner. She is abrupt and bossy. She scowls at us a lot.


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