Fork Corners of the Earth

Likle Montego Jamaican Cafe, 5004 South Price, Tempe, 413-0267. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday and Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9:30 p.m.

You don't need to wait for the 2000 census figures to realize that Phoenix is in the middle of an ethnic explosion. The indications are all around us: The new Chinese center going up near downtown, the battle over Official English and the thriving immigrant press are just three signs.

Is this growing multicultural diversity a good thing? You get arguments on both sides, arguments that don't follow traditional party or ideological lines. One prominent liberal Democrat, for example, has complained that America has "too much E Pluribus and too little Unum." A conservative Republican, meanwhile, approvingly cites FDR's clever dig at the nativist pretensions of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Addressing their convention, the president began his speech with the sly salutation, "My fellow immigrants."

In my narrow corner of the universe, however, there's no debating the pros and cons of multicultural diversity. The verdict is in: You can't have too many ethnic restaurants.

For proof, check out Likle Montego Jamaican Cafe. As far as I'm aware, it's now the Valley's only full-service Caribbean restaurant. (There's also Caribbean Grill, 9719 North Hayden in Scottsdale, a fast-food-style outlet.)

Over the past few years, several places featuring Caribbean specialties have tried unsuccessfully to connect with local diners. Banana Bay in Scottsdale lasted about a year; after about a four-year run, Coconuts Cafe threw in the conch shell a few months ago; and All That Jazz in downtown Phoenix recently scuttled its island menu in favor of Southern soul food.

Does something about Caribbean fare disagree with Valley ethnic-food fans? I don't think so. I'd say, in varying degrees, mediocre eats, indifferent service and high prices played a part in the demise of Likle Montego's predecessors. Happily, none of those factors is at work here.

It's a storefront operation, doing business since December from the massive shopping complex on the northwest corner of Price and Baseline. The room is done up in Jamaica's national colors--black, yellow and green--with some Rastafari red thrown in for brightness. Part of the space is given over to a raised dance floor and DJ booth to accommodate live weekend entertainment. At other times, recorded reggae music spills out of the music system. A few painted palm trees, some artificial plants and a "Red Stripe" sign furnish the rest of the interior design.

The menu is small, but the food is tasty and the prices are certainly right--everything comes with change back from a 10.

Start off munching the irresistible fried plantains, sweet, crunchy and pleasantly oily. The jerked-chicken appetizer (also available as a main dish) brings mildly spiced, fall-off-the-bone poultry, with a honey-mustard dip and French fries. No doubt there are better things to do in this world than nibble fried plantains and jerked chicken, and wash them down with Red Stripe, the wonderful Jamaican national brew, while tapping your feet to a reggae beat. However, at this moment, I can't think of any.

Some folks have a problem with the heat of Jamaican fare. Bite into a scotch bonnet pepper unawares, and you may feel as if you've just swallowed a live hand grenade. However, the kitchen here--perhaps attuned to East Valley sensitivities--keeps the flames way, way down. If you want to light a fire, use the bottled condiments on the table. I found the hot tomato-mango sauce very effective.

Goat is a Jamaican staple, and Likle Montego Jamaican Cafe has the courage to feature it. The meat comes in big cubes, surprisingly tender and not at all gamy. A nonthreatening curry helps bring out all the flavors. Like all the main dishes, this platter comes with a choice of white rice, or the better bet, a blend of rice and red beans, along with some savory boiled cabbage.

When one of my crew ordered the tilapia, an Arizona farm-raised fish, the waitress asked, "With or without the head?" It seems that a customer had flipped out a few weeks earlier when she saw dinner staring back at her. Since then, the staff has been checking customer preferences. No matter which way you look at it, or it looks at you, the tilapia will come gently pan-fried, moist and delicate.

If you're looking for something unusual, come on an evening when the kitchen offers the oxtail special. You get a pile of huge, gnawingly good bones, ringed with meat. The lima bean accompaniment provides a pleasing exotic touch.

Hearty appetites will appreciate the curried chicken, which sports lots of juicy, white meat in a savory curry. The kidney-bean soup, an occasional special, also smothers hunger pangs. It's a meal in a bowl, a rich, skillfully seasoned broth supporting beans, shredded meat and hunks of potato.

Unfortunately, the meal ends with a whimper, not a bang. Instead of tropical sweets, you're offered what-are-they-doing-here, made-elsewhere German chocolate cake, carrot cake and cheesecake. Why not cut up some mango or flame some fried bananas soaked with rum?

Despite the dessert shortcomings, Likle Montego Jamaican Cafe is just the sort of cheap ethnic restaurant that makes living in the big city fun. Is it a substitute for a Caribbean vacation? Hardly. But at least it can help you pretend for a couple of hours.

Thy Thy, 3424 North 19th Avenue, Phoenix, 234-2710. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., seven days a week.

Set along a stretch of 19th Avenue that may soon be called "Little Saigon," Thy Thy (pronounced "Tee Tee") is a new Vietnamese restaurant with two highly positive attributes: The food is extremely tasty, and it's breathtakingly cheap. If two people come here armed with a $20 bill, they'll probably go home with change and a doggy bag.

The place looks like it came out of Central Casting, Ethnic Restaurant Division. It's brightly lighted, with Asian decorative panels on the wall and live plants, including a miniature kumquat tree, set around the room. A marker board lists the daily specials in Vietnamese, along with abbreviated English translations. A small child wanders out of the kitchen and tours the restaurant, shyly staring at customers, until she's fetched back to where she belongs. Euro-Asian pop music provides aural background.

It's easy to romanticize cheap ethnic restaurants. But I'm experienced enough to know the pitfalls. One common ethnic-joint danger: old, tired ingredients that have sat around too long, waiting for somebody to put them to use. Fortunately, that's not a problem at Thy Thy--everything I sampled tasted remarkably fresh and made-to-order.

Soups are a Vietnamese specialty, and Thy Thy's models are hearty and fragrant. The seafood soup features a light, scallion-flecked broth teamed with shrimp, squid, "krab" and rice noodles. A sprightly Cambodian version of this soup comes with sliced pork, shrimp, squid, noodles and bean sprouts. If you want to boost the flavor even more, throw in jalapenos and squeeze on some lime, which come alongside for just that purpose.

At $1.65 for two, it seems as if Thy Thy is practically giving goi cuon away. You won't hear me complaining. I adore these spring roll appetizers, rice paper wraps stuffed with good-sized shrimp, ground pork and greenery. They're even better after you dip them in the sweet/tangy peanut sauce.

The menu offers several outstanding noodle options. Banh Cuon Nhan Thit (No. 2 to you and me) reminds me of chow fun, the Chinese noodle dish. Thick, starchy rice noodle sheets are folded over ground pork, and topped with shrimp tempura. (Novices beware: The shrimp is fried whole, with the head on.) There are several variations on this rice noodle theme. No. 7, for instance, comes with thin slices of a pork-yam loaf and a bit of pork. Both dishes, and just about everything else, are designed to be dipped into nuoc-mam, the ubiquitous fish sauce that gives Vietnamese food its distinctive flair.

If you prefer thin rice noodles, tell your server you want No. 17. These noodle sticks are studded with peanuts and adorned with barbecued pork and sliced egg rolls.

The best noodle dish is marker board special No. 3. It's a nest of crispy fried egg noodles, laden with shrimp, pork or chicken. When we couldn't make up our minds, our server told us we could have some of each. Lots of veggies provided an unexpected bonus--carrots, bok choy, celery, diced bamboo shoots, peppers and oyster and shiitake mushrooms. The ingredients were smoothed with a spoon-lickin' sauce, slightly sweet, that the proprietor understandably takes great pride in. When you factor in this platter's five-dollar tag, you might reasonably conclude that it hardly pays to eat at home.

Another standout is marker board special No. 9, lemongrass chicken. The first thing you'll notice is the chicken itself, a big portion of moist white meat still in its prime. The breast meat is temptingly crusted with red chile, sauteed in aromatic lemongrass and accompanied by rice. The cook says it's one of the more popular dishes, and I can see why patrons are enthusiastic.

Vietnamese beverages can sometimes be too offbeat for American tastes. Thy Thy not only whips up some exotic thirst quenchers, but also blends some incredibly refreshing drinks that could make you swear off soda pop forever. The cool, homemade lemonade, the icy jackfruit shake and the irresistible, hazelnut-flavored coffee shake almost make me glad that the temperature is rising, just so I can come back here to slake my thirst.

Thy Thy's proprietor says he's considering expanding the menu. I wouldn't talk him out of it. After all, you can't have too much of a good thing.

Likle Montego Jamaican Cafe:
Fried plantains
Curried goat
Pan-fried tilapia

Thy Thy:
Cambodian-style soup
Banh Cuon
Nhan Thit
Lemongrass chicken
coffee shake


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