Casa Carmen, 6840 North 35th Avenue, Phoenix, 973-8556. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
The hustle and bustle of the holidays are just about over, and I've got a long list of things I don't want to see again for another year: visitors, shopping malls, photocopied Christmas letters with my name scrawled next to "Dear" and any movie with Jimmy Stewart in it.
The week after Christmas definitely lacks magic. You're broke, stressed out and feeling fat. The vacationing kids are not only bored, they turn nasty when you point to the three-week-old Chex party mix in the living room when they ask what's for lunch.
And after you've brought out yet again the leftover turkey soup, turkey salad, turkey hash and turkey … la king, which seem to have been spontaneously reproducing in the refrigerator since Thanksgiving, the family cites the Geneva Convention.
What's the best way to avoid the annual Christmas-to-New Year's holiday funk?
Some people make noble resolutions, planning to transform themselves into trimmed-down paragons of virtue beginning Monday, January 4. (No use starting on Friday and ruining the three-day weekend.)
Those who can delay their gratification might savor the prospect of January department store white sales or the upcoming NFL playoffs.
Not me. I employ the more traditional method to escape depression: I eat my way out of it.
This year I decided familiar, comforting and cheap Mexican eats furnished the best antidote to the end-of-year doldrums.
We headed to the west side and Casa Carmen. So did lots of other people. On a weekday evening, the parking lot was filled with pickups and minivans. Inside, the place was jammed with cap-sporting guys, their chain-smoking gals and their families.
They certainly couldn't have been drawn here by the decor. Casa Carmen is pure American coffee shop, from the vinyl booths to the fake wood paneling.
Some sombreros hanging over the kitchen counter, fake plants with fake fat Mexican flowers and piped-in mariachi music are the visual and aural clues that suggest the fare. Dim pink light bulbs recessed in the ceiling make me wonder why restaurant owners believe diners enjoy their food inversely to their ability to find it.
No trouble finding the nachos, though--the platter was so big you could sense its presence before actually focusing on it. Fresh chips piled high came slathered with beans, cheese, scallions, tomatoes, yellow pepper and jalape¤os. A spatula--or was it a trowel?--accommodatingly rested alongside. Fueled by unusually potent margaritas, chunky salsa and incredibly poor judgment, my wife and I polished off the chips.
The menu has zero surprises, just what we were in the mood for, since the last holiday surprise we encountered came with two suitcases, three kids and a "We-were-just-passing-through-Phoenix" greeting.
Chicken fajitas don't come on a sizzling iron skillet. Instead, thick hunks of grilled chicken and mounds of green pepper and onions cover a plate, along with some ordinary cheese-draped beans. It's probably the least filling item on the menu (though plenty ample), and a wise selection if you've just stuffed yourself with nachos.
On the other hand, the chimichanga is heavy enough to swamp a battleship, and large enough to conceal Jimmy Hoffa. The crisply fried burro must have contained at least three-quarters of a pound of tender shredded beef. In addition, it came topped with an eye-opening pile of guacamole and sour cream.
The other staples of Sonoran cuisine also made up in taste what they lacked in novelty.
Casa Carmen's chile relleno featured a double portion of two sharp poblano peppers, lightly breaded and not overpowered with cheese. Sometimes this dish is so flabby you're hardly aware it contains a chile. But you won't be in the dark about the dish's principal ingredient after biting into this kicky version.
The shredded beef taco is pretty substantial, too. You can actually see the beef without the aid of a magnifying glass, and the corn tortilla and lettuce create a mouth-pleasing crunch. The steaming green corn tamale, meanwhile, spread the fragrant aroma of ground corn over several nearby tables.
The cheese enchilada, though, was nothing special, some cheesy gunk oozing out of a corn tortilla. And only my wife's insistence that we eat something green besides guacamole persuaded me to order a tostada, a bean, cheese and lettuce-drenched concoction of zero culinary interest.
Given the stomach-expanding nature of the food, it's hard to imagine how the concept of "dessert" ever crept into the Mexican kitchen. Still, we couldn't resist the bready sopaipilla, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. It comes fresh, hot and steaming. Good thing, too--it has an edible life span of about two minutes.
Casa Carmen won't be showing up in any Arizona restaurant guides celebrating new dimensions in the culinary arts. But this down-home, family-owned place puts out heaps of well-prepared Sonoran fare at budget prices. And that's plenty okay in our book.
El Maya, 2401 West Glendale Avenue, Phoenix, 242-2314. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Newly opened El Maya looks like a Garcia's before the corporate design people started on the makeover. It's got a sparse, Third World look that probably derives more from lack of capital than shrewd marketing ingenuity. But I found its genuineness thoroughly appealing.
The exposed ductwork snaking its way through the cavernous main and side rooms, for instance, owes less to high-tech artifice than it does to simple necessity. There's a lot of bare wall space to stare at, too, intermittently enlivened by a carved head, hanging serapes and artificial plants.
If this restaurant were in Scottsdale, the lighting would be called "subdued." Here, it's simply low wattage, but it adds to the charm. El Maya looks like the kind of place that would attract Bogart and his fellow prospectors in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
The food mimics the decor: It's pretty basic and completely unpretentious. But it's also solid, hearty and cheap.
We proved Ambrose Bierce's point that experience is nothing more than the repetition of past follies by again wolfing down nachos and margaritas. El Maya's nachos are as stripped down as a bottom-of-the-line Yugo: fresh chips glued together with cheese, moistened with thin, hot salsa constantly replenished by an on-the-ball busboy. Perhaps there's some clinic to help addicts break the take-a-sip-of-margarita, munch-a-handful-of-nachos cycle. Only I'm not sure I'm want to be cured yet.
Unlike Casa Carmen, dinners here come with soup or salad. The cup of alb¢ndigas soup featured rice, onion, carrot, cilantro and a squishy meatball in flavorful tomato broth. The salad, a cold plate of iceberg lettuce in a puddle of bottled dressing, should have been turned back at the border.
El Maya's menu tiptoes a bit beyond the usual fare. It temptingly offers chicken mole, for example. Unfortunately, the dish is apparently easier to print up than prepare, because it wasn't available the night we were there.
However, the kitchen could turn out Mexican-style halibut, and did it surprisingly well. The good-size slab of fish came grilled to flaky perfection, slathered with a tomato and chile salsa. Accompanied by some tasty short-grain Mexican rice, it's a good choice for those who can't face too much lard-laden Sonoran fare.
So is the fajitas platter, a dish that tasted a lot better than it looked. As at Casa Carmen, a large plate, not a sizzling gringo skillet, bore the insipid-looking mix of chicken and beef, onions, green pepper and tomato wedges. But the meat was pleasingly tender with a crispy grilled edge. And a terrific side of guacamole perked everything up.
El Maya does a creditable job, too, with the usual suspects of Mexican restaurants. The placemat boasts about the homemade tamales, and with reason. I adore green corn tamales, and the soft and spongy specimen here has a powerful corn fragrance. Equally good was the cheese enchilada--crisply cooked, and zipped up with lots of green onion.
The chile relleno, though, seemed strictly routine. A mild Anaheim chile came buried in tons of cheese and dipped in enough egg to make a Denver omelet. It's gloppy and tasteless, a combination likely to inspire diners to make a run from the border.
No matter how stuffed, I can always manage to down some flan for dessert. Consuming El Maya's version was more a pleasure than a duty. It's smooth-textured and incredibly sweet, wonderful with strong coffee.
But no coffee could rescue the dense, fruit-stuffed, over-the-hill sopaipilla. It's as big as a discus, and about as appetizing. And the unpleasantness is compounded by a mountain of off-putting whipped cream.
Sometimes, the comforting security of familiar food is just the boost you need to escape the holiday blahs. El Maya's worth a shot. After all, it's cheaper than therapy, and considerably more filling.
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