Eliana's, 1627 North 24th Street, Phoenix, 225-2925. Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Life has a way of throwing cherished myths right back in your face. I've had a hard time coping with reality at least three times.
First, I learned there was no tooth fairy. Later, when I joined the work force, I discovered that the puritan virtues of diligence and hard work were not always rewarded.
And now I've found out that most downscale ethnic restaurants are not run by great refugee chefs who fled to America to prepare huge amounts of exquisite native specialties for less than the cost of a week-overdue library book.
It's unlikely I'll have my faith in the tooth fairy restored, since I've become one myself. And everyone in the downsizing 90s knows it's better to be the boss's lazy brother-in-law than a nose-to-the-grindstone employee.
But I may have to reassess my position on cheap ethnic places. Eliana's does serve large amounts of exquisite, native Salvadoran specialties, for about the cost of a three-week-overdue library book.
Even in its larger, brand-new digs, Eliana's still sports the traditional, laminated-wood, ethnic-restaurant look. A few posters of the homeland, a Salvadoran flag and a couple of colorful, cloth scenes of village life provide most of the visual stimulation.
But the food is what really grabs your attention.
It's served by a patient, friendly man, the cook's husband, who smoothly guides first-timers through unfamiliar territory.
We started off with soup of the day, alb¢ndigas, a big bowl of flavorful chicken broth, swimming with chunks of carrot, potatoes and an oversize meatball, that would fill up most nonprofessional bellies. Squeeze in some lemon to add some zip.
Don't pass up, under any circumstances, the outrageously good pupusas, corn masa patties stuffed with meat, beans and cheese. They've got a rich, homemade fragrance that's positively addicting. Those determined to gild the lily can spoon on the two tasty condiments at the table: a pungent tomato salsa and a vinegary chopped cabbage.
There are only two full-fledged main-dish dinner plates here. Mojarra frita is a whole, fried tilapia, an Arizona-farm-raised fish that's turned into quite a local industry. It's a mild, white-meat specimen, with not too many bones. A young server, aiding his father, thoughtfully asked if we preferred the head removed before its appearance at the table. We did.
It's a crispy critter, not in the least greasy, with a fresh, clean taste. It comes with undistinguished rice, beans and salad, but also with powerful, homemade corn tortillas, thick, aromatic disks that bear no resemblance to store-bought versions.
Pollo encebollado is the other choice, a hefty hunk of tender, fried chicken with all the fixings for $5.95. After you demolish it, you may long for a day of toil in the lower forty instead of behind a desk. It's filling, and requires some working off.
Rather than gorge on the rice and beans, though, spring for an extra three bucks and get the platter of thick-cut, fried yuca, a starchy, potatolike tuber that was obviously created to be dropped into a vat of bubbling oil. It may spoil you forever on French fries. One side order is plenty for two people.
Even better is the dreamy pl tano frito, fried, ripe plantains lapped by colorful puddles of pur‚ed refried beans and thick, white cream. If there's such a thing as edible art, this is it.
There's a native dessert, quesadilla Salvadore¤a, an offbeat, grainy concoction made from corn. It's cheesy and a bit sweet, a pleasant way to finish up.
And diners not hooked on soda pop should slake their thirst with a cooling, freshly prepared drink of apple, pear and pineapple, pulpy with bits of fresh fruit. It's so refreshing, you'll almost be glad you were parched by triple-digit temperatures.
By itself, Eliana's won't revive lost faith in the Easter Bunny, honest politicians or American automobile manufacturers. But it keeps the flame of hole-in-the-wall ethnic gem alive.
Papa's Kitchen, 808 East Indian School, Phoenix, 279-5174. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Papa's Kitchen, by contrast, would have to undertake significant capital improvements to reach hole-in-the-wall status. Its ramshackle storefront, in a ramshackle strip of ramshackle shops, doesn't hold out the prospect of epicurean delights within.
So much for appearances. There may be better meals in town, but they're not cheaper. And if there are cheaper meals, they're not better.
Look up the word "funky" in a dictionary and you'll probably see a picture of this joint's interior. A blaring television set, whirling fans to supplement insufficient air conditioning and some beat-up tables and chairs indicate that Papa hasn't been plowing profits back into plant and equipment. To be fair, though, most of the business is takeout.
Three charming, gaily colored paintings of middle Europe hint at the Hungarian foundations of Papa's cuisine. Two of the paintings feature bucolic village scenes. The third, possibly executed by American painter Grant Wood's Budapest cousin, could be called "Hungarian Gothic." It highlights a woman with sausages and a native hoisting a barrel of local wine.
Papa's dinners all come with soup, a zesty chicken broth littered with pasta shells and shredded carrot. It's not a throwaway bowl designed solely to fill you up. This soup is genuinely appealing.
Nor are the side orders afterthoughts. The pasta salad isn't some commercial, mayonnaise-drenched glop. It sports celery and cucumber and a tart, vinegary tang. The potato salad also has a homemade touch, hunks of potato and onion, again with a vinegary wallop.
And the buttered roll, to my astonishment, was actually edible.
The main dishes really shine.
Beef and dumplings arrived with heaps of tender, long-simmered beef chunks in a heavy-duty sauce. The dumplings were right up my alley: dense, doughy morsels that could sink right through a Styrofoam container.
The plate of chicken and dumplings is equally alluring, hunky chunks of chicken in a somewhat lighter sauce.
Two huge, paprika-packed cabbage rolls, each thick as a forearm and stuffed with ground beef, transported us back to Eastern Europe. They come with a tangy side of rice that indicated someone back in the kitchen was making an effort.
If you're not into Hungarian food, you can try stuffed chicken breast, lasagna or meat loaf, the latter lightly topped with mozzarella and marinara sauce. No dinner will set you back more than $6.25.
Papa's place may not look like much, but then again, neither did my grandmother's. And nothing kept me out of her kitchen.
Tu Do, 7828 North 19th Avenue, Phoenix, 864-6759. Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
Tu Do, a north-side Vietnamese eatery, is done up in timeless, cheap, ethnic-restaurant fashion: a television set tuned to Spanish-language soaps, hardworking ceiling fans and artificial plants that have seen better days.
It also offers an exceptionally large and varied menu, close to 100 dishes, which occasionally overtaxes the kitchen. This place is real hit-and-miss. It seemed every dish was either a home run or a strikeout.
Goi cuon, rice-paper-wrapped spring rolls, got out of the park in a hurry. Somehow, they're crammed full with two whole shrimp, bits of pork, veggies, noodles and fresh mint. This leadoff hitter had lots of muscle.
So did the other appetizer we sampled, grilled ground beef wrapped in fried grape leaves. It's kind of like Greek dolmeh, but with an unusual, and delightful, flavor twist. You wrap it up with cucumber and lettuce in thin, rice-paper crepes, first coating the crepes with a sharp chile sauce. For these first few minutes, I thought Tu Do had a lineup as powerful as the 1927 Yankees. But then we were quickly reminded of the 1962 Mets.
Boneless chicken saut‚ed with hot chile peppers and a ladleful of ginger had real bite. The chicken chunks, though, were tough around the edges, evidence that they had been sitting around for a while. I'd like to taste this dish cooked up fresh.
But I don't want to try do bien xao thap cam again, under any circumstances. It promised marinated shrimp and fish cake stir-fried with carrot, broccoli and cabbage. Instead, this disaster featured off-putting amounts of surimi--cheap, processed fish that's called "krab" in the supermarkets. It's painful to contemplate, even in retrospect.
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The barbecue pork rice noodles need to go down to the minors for more seasoning. Like the chicken, the pork was a bit leathery, although fistfuls of fresh cilantro and mint indicated major-league potential.
But a house specialty, banh xeo, is good enough to go directly to the hall of fame. It's fantastic--an omeletlike mix of pork, shrimp, onions and sprouts fried in rice flour. The thick texture added to the appeal, and so did the traditional fish sauce alongside.
With good ordering luck, this place can be a contender. With bad ordering karma, it's much Tu Do about nothing.