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Flan Fanatic

King of crème: Chef Arturo Rodriguez with the specialty of the house, Asi es la Vida's flan Napolitano.
Jackie Mercandetti

Flan is one of those desserts people pooh-pooh, as if its production seems too simple, or its presence in a Southwestern town like ours too prevalent. But take it from a flan-obsessed gourmand like myself: Good flan ain't easy to find. Like tiramisu in Italian eateries, flan is often written off as a passable postscript to a meal. And yet, when given the attention it deserves, this crème caramel can be exquisite beyond compare.

Like snowflakes, house-made flans tend to vary from restaurant to restaurant, with only ghastly, premade, prepackaged flans tasting uniformly the same. The jiggly custard boasts a history going all the way back to Roman times, when the use of eggs from domesticated fowl became a big deal. The Romans loved savory flans, but ate sweet ones as well. The addition of caramel poured over the custard came centuries later, because of the spread of Arabic culture in Spain and elsewhere. According to Toussaint-Samat's influential History of Food, the Arabs invented caramel. And Alan Davidson's Penguin Companion to Food credits the conquering Moors with teaching the Spanish the art of refining the sugar from which caramel would be made.

The Spanish brought flan to Latin America, and Yahweh bless them for it, because otherwise I wouldn't be happily noshing my way through thousands of pounds of the gooey delight. I order it every time it's offered on a restaurant's menu. Just can't help myself. What follows are a few places where I've devoured flan of late, listed from the most impressive to the least. Bad flan? Don't think I've ever had any of that, knock on wood.

Asi es la Vida, 3602 North 24th Street, Phoenix, 602-952-1255.
Asi es la Vida is renowned for preparing some of the best Mexican food in Phoenix, so it's no surprise its flan is exceptional. It calls its cheesecakey custard "flan Napolitano." Chef Arturo Rodriguez says he adds a little queso de tres leches, or three-milk cheese, just like they do in Mexico, for a slightly firmer texture. Served as a slice, with fresh caramel syrup poured over it, it's nothing less than magnificent. I've had this Napolitano-style previously at Coyoacán, but wasn't crazy about it because there it was served to me without caramel and tasted too much like cheesecake. But like so many other things at Asi, Rodriguez's creation is culinary perfection. Why it's called "Napolitano," not even Rodriguez knows, but he assures me it has nothing to do with our state's chief executive, whose personality and policies more resemble a slice of white toast. Cost: $6.

Rosita's Place, 2310 East McDowell Road, Phoenix, 602-244-9779.
Rosita's flan is even firmer than Asi es la Vida's, but otherwise similar: a fine traditional flan, with a bit of a brownish "crust," for lack of a better term, which soaks up the caramel. If you've never been to Rosita's Place, do yourself a favor and go as soon as they return from summer vacation on August 16. Aside from the outstanding flan, they've got a machaca taco that'll make your toes curl. And the refried beans taste almost like some sort of pudding, they're so delectable. Once you start in on the frijoles or the flan, you won't put down your utensil until there's nothing left but the memory. Cost: $2.50.

Comedor Guadalajara, 1830 South Central Avenue, Phoenix, 602-253-8299, www.comedorguadalajara.com.
This stark, gym-hall-like family restaurant comes through with some of the most appealing Mexican comestibles in south Phoenix -- and that's saying something. CG sells one of the most unique flans around -- a deep, brownish-beige custard that's extremely smooth and caramely inside and out. There's not a hint of the egginess you get with some flans, and the caramel flavor rips through your synapses like you've just done a bowl of crack. Nothing subtle about this flan, but I ain't complaining. Cost: $3.25.

Rancho de Tia Rosa, 3129 East McKellips Road, Mesa, 480-659-8787, www.tiarosa.net.
An attractive, hacienda-style restaurant with tile-topped tables, fountains, and stained-glass windows. I enjoyed what I ate there, but it struck me as an attempt to do a more healthful version of traditional Mexican fare, with mixed results. Still, Tia Rosa's flan was superb, a yardstick by which other flans can be judged. Garnished with blueberries and whipped cream, this round, yellow dessert was picture-perfect. Taste-wise, it was creamy, light, and almost fluffy, with a freshly made caramel sauce that I spooned to my lips even after the custard was long gone. All flans should at least be on a par with this one. Cost: $5.

Richardson's, 1582 East Bethany Home Road, Phoenix, 602-265-5886.
I t's hard not to fall in love with Richardson's, at least once the place starts to clear out late on a weeknight. Otherwise, everyone in there is over 50, loud, and smokes like a freight train. Once the Hawaiian-shirt wearers have dispersed, and you don't have to inhale a cloud of Marlboro smoke with every bite, certain items shine, like Richardson's super-eggy flan. In fact, this flan's so heavy on the huevos, owner Richardson Browne should consider adding a side of chorizo and serving it for breakfast. My suggestion: more caramel. But, hey, maybe that's the way they eat it in New Mexico. Cost: $5.

Barrio Cafe, 2814 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 602-636-0240, www.barriocafe.com.
There are a lot of things I dig about Barrio Cafe: the music, the art on the walls, the mole sauce. Surprisingly, the flan isn't one of them. It's listed as Flan de mi Mami ("The Flan of my Mother"), and I guess that would be Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza's mami. Whoever's responsible for it, it's mediocre, despite the thick caramel sauce, the sliced strawberries on the side, and the bits of toasted, cinnamony pecans. The flan itself is the problem. Too dense and lacking in flavor. Keep the caramel and the pecans, but scrap that flan and start over. Cost: $8.

Old Town Tortilla Factory, 6910 East Main Street, Scottsdale, 480-945-4567, www.oldtowntortillafactory.com.
Another spot where I adore nearly everything but the flan. The potato tortillas? Delish. The red chile pork chop? I'd swap my own Mami for a plate. The flan? As close to tasteless as you can imagine. This despite being on a bed of crushed almonds and surrounded by fresh raspberries. The menu promised almond liqueur, but I tasted none and neither did my companion. Weird. Go for the food and the tequila selection, and leave the flan to the pros at Asi es la Vida. Cost: $5.95.


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