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HAVANA WONDERFUL TIME

Havana Patio Cafe, 6245 East Bell Road, Phoenix, 991-1496. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m. In these politically correct times, everyone knows Columbus didn't discover the New World--he stumbled onto it.

He and those who sailed after him shared a common human trait: Although full of adventure to explore new lands, they weren't terribly eager to eat the unfamiliar foods they might find there. So they brought pigs, cattle and rice, which all took hold on this side of the ocean. (Unfortunately, so did the rats and smallpox they also carried along.)

The exchange was far from one-sided. The Native Americans introduced syphilis and chiggers to the Old World. But they also gave Europeans their first taste of corn, potatoes and tomatoes. Some of the fare that developed out of this encounter--Cuban, Latin American and Spanish cuisine--is served up at Havana Patio Cafe, a new northeast Valley sibling of B.J. and Gilbert Hernandez's Havana Cafe on Camelback. Like the food, the Hernandezes are an intriguing mix. He's Cuban. She's a New Yorker with an accent thicker than a corned-beef sandwich. She ran the kitchen the night we were there. By the end of the meal, she had us dreaming about eating our way across the old Spanish Empire. The food's terrific, a more sophisticated and less spicy alternative to Mexican fare.

A patio with an inviting fireplace beckoned, but on a cool night we wimped out and headed inside to the dining room. From the walls to the tablecloths, the restaurant is splashed with pastel tropical prints, what Jackson Pollock might have done if he'd come from the islands. Lace curtains on the windows add a touch of the plantation house, as does the wainscoting that resembles white shutters. Formal-looking black chairs and black banquettes keep the design from getting too out of hand.

Within moments of sitting down, we violated a dining-out rule by digging too deeply into a basket of warm, home-baked dark rolls. Hunger, a pleasant aroma and the festive, piped-in strains of Debussy's "Iberia" proved more than a match for our flimsy principles.

The meal began in earnest with tapas, small Spanish appetizers that, washed down with a fruity pitcher of sangria, can quickly become a dinner if you're not careful. Camar¢nes al ajillo were four juicy, medium-size shrimp saut‚ed in sherry and so much garlic that everyone at your table should be required to munch one in self-defense. I've had so many rubbery, overcooked shrimp that I needed this reminder of why I love the critters in the first place.

Two small pastelitos de carne were mildly spiced, meat-stuffed puff pastries that won't start anyone's heart racing. But the tamal Cubano set off a small skirmish of dueling forks. Fragrant with fresh, ground corn and pieces of pork, it had an intense flavor that pushed everyone's hot button. I could have made a meal of it.

But then I wouldn't have been able to sample first-rate main dishes, reasonably priced and generously portioned.

Ropa vieja--literally, "old clothes"--was a huge mound of tender, shredded beef braised in a tangy tomato sauce. It comes with moros, a mild combination of rice and black beans that will quickly fill up any cracks in your appetite.

Pollo Cubano showed up as hefty, boneless chicken breast, pungent with citrus from a strong, lime-and-orange marinade. Accompanied by saut‚ed onions, it offers a wonderful blend of flavors.

Zarzuela de mariscos is a purely Spanish creation, a good choice for landlocked Valley dwellers hankering for a taste of the sea. It's a zesty seafood stew and, at $14.95, it's about the most expensive item on the menu. You get a healthy dose of aquatic life for the money: Lobster, crab, shrimp, scallops and mussels float in a big bowl of sharp tomato broth. But first we had to scuttle some truly unpleasant clams, long past their prime, that almost sent this dish to Davy Jones' locker.

I enjoyed most the intriguing taste of masas de puerco fritas, thick, moist, tender pork medallions infused with a lime-cumin marinade, then crisply fried. There must have been close to a pound of meat on the plate when we started, but not even Sherlock Holmes could have surmised what had been devoured by the time we were done.

Like a gastronomic Columbus and crew, but with considerably more ballast, we sailed resolutely ahead to the Isle of Dessert. We found the natives both pleasing to the eye and fattening. The flan is fabulous, a heavenly blend of egg yolks and milk, almost submerged in a sauce of caramelized sugar. Somewhat less Iberian, but no less delectable, is creamy cheesecake smothered in a rich chocolate rum sauce that ought to come with a warning from the American Dental Association. And the strong espresso furnished enough of a caffeine kick to jolt us out of a postprandial torpor and permit us to drive home without snoozing. The service at Havana Patio Cafe, friendly but professional, is as appealing as the food. Despite some serious lingering, we never felt rushed. And it's a nice touch when the chef comes by to ask how everyone is doing. This Yanqui finally went home, but he's coming back.

Tapas Pepin, 7363 Scottsdale Mall, Scottsdale, 990-9026. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Tucked away in the Scottsdale Civic Center Mall, Tapas Pepin had me vibrating with anticipation weeks before a visit. That's because it's run by Rafael Souto, who turned Marquesa at Scottsdale Princess resort into one of the Valley's great dining rooms after introducing the Catalan cuisine of Spain.

His new place, more casual and less pricey than Marquesa, also features Spanish food, along with entertaining flamenco dancing and guitar. On a recent Saturday night, Tapas Pepin was crowded and bustling with energy.

It's an inviting, L-shaped dining room, done up almost entirely in white, with plaster pillars and arches framing the eating areas. Wooden shelves overhead sport every kind of Spanish-themed souvenir except a pair of bull's ears. Big jars of unidentifiable objects packed in oil, and waxed-sealed bottles of herbs also form a major decorative motif. The small jars on the tables are not meant to be opened, our waitress told us, but some patrons think they're freebie munchies and attack them, anyway.

They'd be better off waiting for the basket of luscious, fresh garlic bread. It comes with an olive-oil-and-garlic-infused tomato sauce that produces such a sensory high that I expected to see a government warning pasted to its bowl.

The tapas and sangria arrived just as the two flamenco dancers began pounding the floor. In the struggle for my attention, the tapas won.

After all, what can compete with four large, sizzling shrimp, crisp and drenched in garlic? A dozen small clams, enlivened by a dose of white wine and sharp morsels of ham, also kept me focused. Crab and black-rice croquettes in a light lobster sauce were intriguingly out of the ordinary. Only the skewer of chicken and sausage seemed dull and routine, like something you might pick up at a supermarket meat department.

After a suitable interval for watching the floor show, the waitress came out of the kitchen bearing our main dishes, just as we'd started scanning the room for her.

I have memories of Marquesa's filete con queso de Cabrales that push my salivary glands into high gear. Happily, it's just as good at Tapas Pepin. A meltingly tender hunk of filet mignon comes in a puddle of mild Spanish blue cheese. It's not a familiar combination of tastes, but it works beautifully. Too bad the platter's undercooked sliced potatoes didn't provide any diversion.

Cochinillo asado--roast suckling pig--is a house specialty. But you don't have to worry about a whole small pig staring back at you from the table. Tapas Pepin serves a somewhat miserly portion of tasty, slightly singed, sliced pork, fragrant with garlic and herbs.

Perhaps I was victimized by unreasonably high expectations, but the paella Valenciana, which I had been drooling over for a month, never took off and soared.

It certainly wasn't freighted down by edible cargo: Each person (the dish is for two) got one shrimp, two mussels, three tiny clams, a forkful of lobster and a few pieces of boneless chicken and sausage.

But the paella had more fundamental problems. Why was this dish prepared in a deep, earthenware casserole, instead of the traditional paella pan? The casserole imparted a steamed quality to the ingredients, hardly the traditional taste or texture. And why was this paella made with long-grain rice, not the short, stubby and expensive Valencia variety?

The rich crema Catalana dessert got us headed back on track, despite the strange dollop of vanilla ice cream plopped in the thick, raspberry-studded custard. The ice cream also appeared wrapped in a thin cookie shell, a rather odd combination that the waitress called a Spanish cannoli. Tapas Pepin can't wipe away all of the sins of the Spanish in the New World. But the food and flamenco at least compensate for Julio Iglesias.

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Havana Patio Cafe

6245 E. Bell Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85254

480-991-1496

www.havanacafe-az.com


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