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CHAINED HEAT

You've just returned from a summer vacation spent visiting your in-laws in Nebraska. Your coffers are empty and so is your stomach. After two weeks in the heartland, you want--no, make that need--some Mexican food in a hurry.

Have I got a place for you.
Taco Cabana, Bazooka pink and newly opened at the intersection of University and Mill in Tempe, is quick, cheap and pleasant. You can drive through, take out or eat in. You can eat outside on the misted, covered patio. Service is fast and courteous, there's plenty of parking and rest rooms are luxurious by fast-food standards. Best of all, it's open 24 hours.

Taco Cabana is a San Antonio success story that started in a converted Dairy Queen. If you think it looks and operates like Two Pesos, you're absolutely correct. Only you've got it backward. Taco Cabana came first; Two Pesos, a Houston-based chain, is the copycat. A Texas court made this clear when it agreed that Two Pesos should pay Taco Cabana $2 million dollars in damages for precisely this reason.

At Taco Cabana, you order at the counter. Drinks are self-serve and it charges a nickel for water. Collect your food tray when your number is called. All three times I visit, my order is up in less than a minute.

Taco Cabana's freestanding condiment bar offers two types of salsa (chunky and pureed), quartered limes, chopped white onion, jalapeno and cilantro. Both salsas use ripe tomato and have a nice kick to them; the sweet-and-fiery chunky one, in particular, is excellent.

Choose a seat at one of the semiretrometal table and chairs. I sit inside on one occasion and outside on two. Noise is a problem in both places. Outside, eighteen-wheelers, Harleys and fire engines roar by on University Drive. Inside, conversation seems to clatter and rebound off the hard surfaces. Plus, no matter what time of day I stop in, the same peppy Mexican music plays; by my third visit, it no longer sounds festive. If this tape repeats 24 hours a day, I pity the crew.

As for the food, it's pretty decent. A crispy bean and cheese tostada, topped with lettuce and sprinkled with grated cheese, is above average. An al carbon soft taco features a generous quantity of char-grilled beef strips in a flour tortilla. A squeeze of lime, some onion, cilantro and salsa and this baby cooks.

A combo fajita plate comes with guacamole, smoky borracho beans (whole pintos flavored with bacon), rice, lettuce and tomatoes. The beef and chicken fajitas are already placed in flour tortillas and wrapped in tinfoil. They're on the salty side, so I would not recommend them for sodium-sensitive individuals, but I like them--especially when I pile on the add-ons.

The picadillo plate is a homey affair consisting of mildly spiced ground beef mixed with potatoes. My dining accomplice calls it "Mexican Hamburger Helper." Despite the possible accuracy of his remark, I like this dish. Refried beans, rice, lettuce and tomatoes round out the plate.

A chorizo-and-scrambled-egg breakfast taco is less thrilling. The egg-chorizo mixture is barely warm and obviously not made to order. The soft flour tortilla wrapped around the mixture is the breadiest tortilla I've ever eaten--thicker than normal and sort of dry. A miserly order of chips for 79 cents proves to be unsalty and just plain ordinary.

Though it's a bit congested inside and noisy overall, any way you look at it, Taco Cabana is destined to be a hit. The Tempe location is a stone's throw from ASU and accessible by foot or car, the hours are unimprovable, and the food is decent and inexpensive. Domestic and imported beers will be available as soon as the restaurant obtains its liquor license.

We can only hope Taco Cabana's owners will spring for a couple more tapes.

Okay, I admit it. Before I started this job last March I wasn't a regular Cap'n Dave reader. This clearly puts me in the minority, but it's the ugly truth. Now I know the consequences of my actions.

Last weekend I walk excitedly into Rocky Point Restaurant in South Phoenix, notebook in hand, ready to tell the world about my find. This fantasy lasts nearly fifteen seconds, about as long as it takes to spot my esteemed New Times colleague's column prominently tacked to the wall.

Curses! Cap'n Dave has already been here! That winking visage seems smugger than ever from its framed vantage point behind the register. Scanning the column quickly, I grasp that he liked the food ("the beans are a revelation") and seemed particularly interested in the presence of turtle on the menu. In fact, Cap'n Dave's doodle that week was a turtle burro. As restaurant closings have foiled stories for me all week, I vow to overcome this small setback. "Are we staying?" my accomplice inquires. "Sure," I say recklessly. "Why not? We'll see whether Cap'n Dave and I agree."

 

Happily, we do--on this place, anyway.
I like the relaxed yet lively atmosphere at Rocky Point. The tiny, wood-paneled restaurant is filled with conversation and Mexican jukebox music. And the food is good. I shy away from turtle, out of respect for a childhood pet named George, but what I try, I like.

A shrimp cocktail is chock-full of firm medium-size shrimp, chopped cucumber, cilantro, onion and tomato suspended in a light-bodied, tomato-tasting liquid. Fresh lemon brightens the flavors considerably.

The ceviche tostada is made of sweet, pulverized shrimp, adorned with chopped tomato, Bermuda onion, cilantro, green onion and bits of jalapeno. A squeeze of lime and a dash of Tapatio sauce make this appetizer perfection.

As Cap'n Dave has already done so much of the groundwork for us, my dining accomplice and I confine our order to the seafood parrillada special with green salad for two ($15.25). Our waitress warns us that it will take twenty minutes to prepare. While we wait, we listen to the chatter of families speaking in Spanish. Fans whir softly and the jukebox never stops.

Out of the kitchen comes a long platter of oven-broiled seafood. Plates are placed in front of each of us bearing buttered baked potato, white rice, shredded lettuce and tomato. A pale "green salad" arrives separately and consists of more shredded lettuce decorated with pickled cauliflower, celery and onions. Everything but the pale salad looks great.

Our waitress brings two nutcrackers and some wedges of lemon. "Do we just take from the platter?" we ask. "Yes," she says. "It's a lot of food."

But it's good. The seafood is tender and perfectly cooked in butter, lemon and dabs of what looks like French's yellow mustard. We receive several butterfly shrimp, two crab legs, chunks of catfish and lots of squid and octopus. White onion, jalapeno and tomato are cooked in the mixture, while wedges of flavorful ripe avocado serve as functional decoration.

We eat as much as we can, but when we're through, we've hardly made a dent. Maybe we should have brought a hearty eater like Cap'n Dave with us. This parrillada is more than a feast; it is an afternoon's entertainment.

Rocky Point Restaurant earns two thumbs up--one from me and one from the smirking guy in the cap. I urge you to keep this place in mind when you get those coastal yearnings.

Think of it his way: It'll save you a trip through Ajo. I discovered El Nuevo Taquito earlier this summer during my quest for the best taco in Phoenix. I like its clean oak-formica-and-orange-booth modern look, offset by a bubbling Old Mexico-style fountain out front.

I also like its menu. In a decidedly fast-food environment, El Nuevo Taquito offers seafood dishes like caldo (soup), cocktails and fish-fry; white menudo; and tacos, tortas and burros of grilled beef, brain, tongue, pork and tripe. Glass-bottled Mexican sodas, rice water and regular sodas are available as beverages. This is the flip side of gringo Taco Cabana.

A shrimp cocktail ordered here comes in typical soda fountain glassware, which surprises me. I had expected a Styrofoam container. I give it a B minus. The shrimp are small and fall somewhere between firm and mealy. But I like the tomato-lime liquid packed with chopped cucumber.

The mixed tostada isn't as successful, and proves redundant after the shrimp cocktail. Definitely order one or the other. What the tostada has going for it is a delicious fried corn tortilla--which I extract and eat. In the minus category are large quantities of imitation crab and more mealy shrimp.

The grilled beef torta is wonderful and also not what I expect. It turns out to be a sandwich on a grilled French roll featuring lots of cilantro-flavored beef morsels, lettuce and tomato. Garnishes on my paper plate include a lime wedge, a whole jalapeno and slices of fresh cucumber and marinated carrot. I'm enchanted.

Two tacos I try here on another occasion are above average. Served on four-inch flour tortillas, the pork taco is marinated in spicy red chile sauce with onion. The carne asada taco uses the same grilled beef as the torta. Tacos come with the carrot, cuke and jalapeno garnishes.

El Nuevo Taquito is clean, well-priced and fast. If you're downtown and looking for a quick lunch, keep it in mind. Just keep driving south on Central.

Oh, and try the torta. It's a revelation.

Taco Cabana, 25 West University, Tempe, 968-3747. Hours: Open 24 hours, seven days a week.

 

Rocky Point Restaurant, 6021 South Central, Phoenix, 243-3371. Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday.

El Nuevo Taquito, 3520 South Central, Phoenix, 268-2311. Hours: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Wednesday; 8 a.m. to 1 a.m., Thursday and Sunday; 8 a.m. to 4 a.m., Friday and Saturday.

Glass-bottled Mexican sodas, rice water and regular sodas are available as beverages. This is the flip-side of gringo Taco Cabana.

I urge you to keep Rocky Point in mind when you get those coastal yearnings. It'll save you a trip through Ajo.

No matter what time of day I stop in, the same peppy Mexican music plays. By my third visit, it no longer sounds festive.

Curses! Cap'n Dave has already been here! That winking visage seems smugger than ever from its framed vantage point behind the register.


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