Lily's Cafe, 6706 North 58th Drive, Glendale, 937-7757. Hours: Lunch, Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Breakfast and Lunch, Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Wednesday through Saturday, 4:30 to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 4:30 to 7 p.m.
When I get the itch for Mexican food, how do I decide where to scratch it? To grab my business, a south-of-the-border restaurant has to pass one of two tests: Either the food has to be better than ordinary--better burros, better tamales, better tacos. Or the food has to be out of the ordinary--something besides burros, tamales and tacos. Among the first group are solid establishments like El Bravo, Guedo's Taco Shop and Rosa's Mexican Grill, which whip up first-rate versions of traditional standards. Among the second group, I'm drawn to Such Is Life and its Yucatn cuisine and San Carlos Bay's Mexican seafood. Each list has now gotten a bit longer. I've found a couple of places in the northwest Valley that put a little kick into the Mexican-food experience. Lily's Cafe, tucked away within the Bermuda Triangle of Grand Avenue, 59th Avenue and Ocotillo Road, is about as easy to find as the Lost Dutchman mine, at least for a bumbling first-timer like me. But obviously the location on North 58th Drive isn't that much of a handicap--this Glendale landmark has been drawing generations of neighborhood customers since 1949. The lure? High-quality, high-value dishes, served in a warm, friendly setting. The place exudes homey, old-fashioned Mexican-cafe character, something most Valley Mexican joints can't quite manage to duplicate. That means a jukebox playing 200 country and Mexican hits. It means red-vinyl booths, dark wood paneling and Mexican "tile" linoleum. And it means a wall full of tourist market bric-a-brac--an Aztec ceramic disk, a bullfighter plaque and colorful paintings.
It also means a friendly word from the mom-and-pop proprietors, crowds of regulars greeted by servers who've been there forever and bustling help who do the bus chores with rare efficiency and lan. From the moment you step inside, Lily's Cafe makes you instantly comfortable. So does the limited menu. It offers familiar Sonoran favorites, in la carte and combination-plate form, that you can get anywhere. Except elsewhere, they're generally not this good. You might not think so from the chips, which have that store-bought look. But there's no mistaking the homemade bite of the hot and chunky jalapeo salsa. With just a little prodding, it's easy to get the owners talking about their food. They're proud of it. "Look, no microwaves," they note, pointing back into the tiny kitchen. "We use good, quality ingredients. And we cook dishes up fresh several times during the day. When you order an enchilada here," they boast, "it hasn't been sitting around all day waiting for you to ask for it."
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I'm convinced. It's difficult to judge by the cheese-crisp munchie, an enormous tortilla drenched with cheese, since it's hardly a test of a Mexican kitchen. But once you get into the main dishes, the freshness and quality of the fare are striking. Zero in on the world-class chimichanga, a model of perfection. As veteran Mexican foodies know, there are far too many chimichangas in this town that sink to your stomach like an oily anvil. Not this one. It's almost delicate. A light, flaky, grease-free, deep-fried crust surrounds hunks of tender beef. Cheese, guacamole, sour cream and greenery are spread across the top. It's obvious that someone in the kitchen isn't content just to go through the chimichanga motions. Seafood enchiladas, an occasional special, show the same level of commitment. Two of these beauties come filled with minced fish, draped with cheese, and topped with four shrimp. Throw in some rice and beans that actually have some taste and you have a platter that makes the $5.60 tag seem like a happy misprint. Lily's Cafe doesn't do pork, and doesn't feature chicken. The daily meat of choice here is beef, and it's done right. That means 1) you don't need the jaws of a wolf to chew it, and 2) you don't have to worry about finding unappetizing chunks of gristle. The beef is a star attraction in the bowl of red chili. This hearty beanless stew should satisfy any urges for animal protein. But the beef has to share top billing with the thick, robust red chile sauce that adds a spicy zip to the proceedings. The tamale and burro also bring out beefy highlights. It's pretty easy to know when you've gotten yesterday's tamale--the corn gets dry and the interior gets gummy. You won't have those problems with this moist, fresh model. The hefty burro is equally effective. And the chile rellenos, which come out of the kitchen after 4:30 p.m., avoid the soggy pitfalls that often turn this dish into a gloppy mess. Lily's relleno is mild, cheesy and eggy. During one of my anonymous chats with the proprietors, the conversation turned to the subject of cleanliness, a topic many restaurant owners like to dodge. But I was escorted behind the cash register, where the latest health-department rating was posted. Lily's score: 100. "You know," the wife complained, "a few months ago, a television station did a report on dirty restaurants. We called them and told them about our 100, but they weren't interested. The media doesn't want to hear good news." Well, maybe. But Mexican-food fans certainly do. So here it is: On just about any level--food, atmosphere, service, price, cleanliness--Lily's Cafe is good news.
New Mexico Cafe, 5775 West Bell Road, Glendale, 547-9512. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.
I usually don't get my hopes up too high when I visit a shopping-center restaurant parked between a Wal-Mart and a pool supply store, on a street lined with every fast-food and chain outlet on the planet. But New Mexico Cafe demonstrates how important it is not to leap prematurely to conclusions. The decor holds out as little promise as the location. The cafe is done up in pink and turquoise Santa Fe tones--pink, in the paper placemats and walls; turquoise, in the trim and paper napkins. The inevitable ristras and inevitable New Mexico posters hang from the wall. The room is also cavernous, which makes it impossible to spark or sustain any energizing restaurant bustle.
This place is trying to establish a west-side niche serving New Mexican-style Mexican food. It's not a bad marketing move--the only New Mexican competition in the Valley is Richardson's in north central Phoenix and the two branches of Los Dos Molinos in South Phoenix and Mesa. What's distinctive about New Mexican food? Two things: chile heat and sopaipillas. New Mexico Cafe furnishes both. The menu boasts that the chiles come from Hatch, New Mexico, a region revered by chile aficionados in the same way Burgundy is esteemed by wine connoisseurs. Those chile experts have a point. You can taste it in the carne adovada burrito. A massive tortilla comes filled with lots of lean, marinated pork smothered with a sublimely zesty red chile sauce. It's hot, but not at native New Mexican levels. (I once had such potent carne adovada in Albuquerque that the bottom half of my face went numb.) The antidotes for Hatch chile heat are sopaipillas, specifically designed to dampen chile fires. In ideal form, they're fresh, puffy pockets of steaming fried dough that you puncture and swath with honey. They're a New Mexico staple, as essential to a meal as grits are to an Alabama breakfast. And New Mexico Cafe sends out a terrific version in its sopaipilla basket--absolutely fresh, and not too bready. Occasionally, sopaipillas serve as an integral part of the main dish, in the version known as stuffed sopaipillas. We got ours filled with chunks of white-meat chicken (beef or beans are also available), vigorously heated up with spicy red chile. You get a lot of bite for $6.25--and this is New Mexico Cafe's most expensive entree. If my expectations were low when I got here, by this time I may have pitched them a bit too high. A good green chile stew can turn your head, but the model here is a little too understated for my taste. Cubes of beef, potato and green chile float in an overly mild liquid that also seemed a tad too greasy. On the other hand, a side order of an off-the-menu special, blue corn beef enchiladas, restored my faith. They're fabulous, packed with heady flavors, and probably the single best item here. The combo-plate crowd isn't ignored. But there's nothing particularly compelling about New Mexico Cafe's usual suspects. The best thing about the taco is the peppy seasoning in the ground beef. The cheese enchilada doesn't have anything near the flair of the blue corn model. And although the pork tamale is well-fashioned, the undercooked rice and flavorless, no-lard beans aren't. New Mexico Cafe also looks after the one member of your group who insists on greenery. Chicken taco salad, served in a crisp tortilla shell, is hardly a New Mexican specialty, but anyone who orders salad in a Mexican restaurant probably isn't much of a stickler for authenticity, anyway. For west-siders craving something different in the way of neighborhood Mexican food, New Mexico Cafe can be the answer. Let's hope there are enough chile-loving neighbors to sustain it.