Joys N the Hood

Phoenix City Grille, 5816 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 266-3001. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Dinner, Saturday and Sunday, 5 to 11 p.m.

What makes a neighborhood desirable in this town? Sure, the schools have to be good. Housing should be affordable. There ought to be parks, libraries and a shopping mix. The neighborhood shouldn't be too far away from a freeway, or too close to the criminal element.

Restaurants, too, play a role in the quality of neighborhood life. Everyone's happy when there are lots of nearby restaurants, serving a variety of compelling fare at fair prices.

Folks in a section of north-central Phoenix, bordered roughly by Seventh and 16th streets to the east and west, and Northern and Camelback to the north and south, seem to have more than their share of quality, neighborhood dining-out options. There's El Bravo, Texaz Grill, Mediterranean House, Coup Des Tartes, Sir Charles Bar-B-Q Pit, Eddie's Grill, Richardson's, Tutti Santi, Zinfandel, Big Wong II and Scott's Generations Deli, just to name a few.

Well, as Saint Matthew pointed out, to those that hath, it shall be given. Two new restaurants have recently opened in this area, and they're first-rate. Both Phoenix City Grille and Taste of Mediterranean Restaurant dish out superior fare at prices you'd only dream about in Scottsdale or along the Camelback corridor. I'd say they're a couple of joys in the 'hood.

Phoenix City Grille operates out of the former Sghetti's. The proprietors wisely haven't made too many design changes to this surprisingly good-looking spot. The raised dining area gives the room a touch of class. The vintage photos of old Phoenix, gleaned from our local historical society's collection, make staring at the walls a more entertaining prospect than is usually the case. Blues and country music are unobtrusively piped in.

The first thing that strikes you about the menu is the "No Couscous" disclaimer at the top. The words are surrounded by a circle and slashed with a line, the international symbol that means "forbidden." I guess the kitchen wants to send diners a message that there'll be nothing too weird, ethnic or trendy about what they'll be eating.

It's a clever idea, maybe a little too clever. As the "No Couscous" advisory suggests, Phoenix City Grille is aiming to position itself as a neighborhood spot for American comfort food. But the warning doesn't begin to suggest just how good some of the dishes here are. The food here may remind you of how mom used to cook, had she been trained as a professional chef.

The basket of chewy breadsticks makes a decent premeal nibble. But go ahead and splurge on the corn bread, available both by the slice and the whole skillet. It's one of the best versions in town, right up there with what you find at Pinon Grill and Coyote Grill, moist, crusty and flavorful. Pair it with a draft of Fat Tire Amber Ale or McFarlane's Pilsner, and you may be tempted not to bother with the rest of the menu.

That would be a mistake. The other appetizer options demonstrate that potato skins, Buffalo wings and mozzarella sticks aren't the only munchies America can come up with. Chief among the ones here were the fabulous griddled corn cakes, layered with ham and peppers, and gilded with a divine roasted-corn relish. Why do I say "were"? Because on a second visit, I found this starter had been misguidedly tweaked: The ham, peppers and corn relish were gone, replaced by chicken, black beans, scallions and tomatoes. This dish wasn't broke; nobody needed to "fix" it.

Thankfully, as far as I know, no one has tried improving on the grilled shrimp skewers, a half-dozen crustaceans teamed with peppers and mushrooms, alongside a nifty peanut dipping sauce. The two crab cakes also work well, although the kitchen might have used something more ingenious than institutional tartar sauce to accompany them.

The main dishes exhibit high quality. I've eaten so much salmon over the past few years (every restaurant serves it) that I'm about ready to spawn. But Phoenix City Grille's imaginative platter got my attention. The fish is seasoned with a touch of citrus and horseradish, grilled and served on a smoldering cedar plank. The sweet wood odor may remind some folks of a scented storage closet, but I enjoyed the combination of aromas. I also enjoyed the marvelous mashed potatoes, loaded with enough snout-clearing horseradish to give you a sinus buzz until Labor Day, and the thick-cut grilled veggie medley, fashioned from peppers, onions, squash and carrots.

Flank steak also gets the treatment. It's not the most tender cut of beef, but here it's first marinated for tenderness and flavor, then grilled, sliced thin and fanned across the plate.

Barbecue chicken was also marvelous, a juicy bird marinated, grilled and coated with a mild chipotle barbecue sauce. I liked this dish so much I sent a poultry-loving friend here to try it. Unfortunately, the kitchen had zapped it from the menu, claiming it was having trouble getting the bird right. Let's hope the chef reconsiders--this chicken is worth the effort. Seafood linguini is also worth the effort: shrimp and real crab tossed in pasta, enlivened with artichokes and capers in a lemony butter sauce.

Even pizzas--fashioned in a cast-iron skillet--showed a bit of flair. The City Grille model, topped with sausage, caramelized onions and smoked provolone, furnishes genuine pizza pleasure.

Phoenix City Grille offers only two desserts, but, when it comes to sweets, I'll take quality over variety. Both desserts are homemade and worth loosening your belt for: The warm chocolate tart is moist and rich, and paired with vanilla ice cream; the pecan pie is appropriately nutty and gooey.

When he brought the check after our first meal here, the waiter informed us that dessert was on the house. How come? "We didn't have your entrees out within 12 to 15 minutes," he explained. We hadn't noticed any problems with the meal's pacing. Still, you won't find me complaining if restaurants start making a fetish over service. Who knows, maybe this is the start of a trend.

Phoenix City Grille is just the sort of comfortable neighborhood spot every big-city neighborhood should have. Let's hope it inspires imitators in other parts of town.

Taste of Mediterranean Restaurant, 7811 North 12th Street, Phoenix, 678-1165. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Taste of Mediterranean Restaurant offers a short course in restaurant archaeology. Look closely and you'll see design remains of this place's last two incarnations: a Japanese restaurant and a Wisconsin cheese-and-sausage shop.

Now, its current proprietor, a Turk who once worked as a cruise-ship waiter, has turned it into a Middle Eastern restaurant, serving the usual kebab fare. What's unusual about these usual kebabs is that they taste so good.

With most entrees in the $7 range (and combination plates a buck or two higher), your budget should be able to handle an appetizer hit, especially since you can opt for half-orders. Stuffed grape leaves are lovely and notably fresh-tasting, stuffed with rice and onions and drizzled with olive oil. Highly seasoned falafel also tastes like it just came out of the fryer. Hummus is garlicky enough to keep north-central Phoenix werewolf-free indefinitely. But the spinach-cheese pastry--the Greeks call it spanakopita--is a disappointment, stale and overpriced.

If you've got an extra dollar, you might want to splurge on a dinner soup. It's usually lentil, and it tastes homemade, thick, hearty and filling.

If you are counting pennies, you can fight hunger for free with the basket of warm pita bread and salad that accompanies all dinners. It's an enjoyable mix of lettuce, tomato, onions, cucumbers, feta cheese, olives and pepperoncini, moistened with a tangy yogurt dressing.

Several kebabs are lip-smackingly wonderful. I never order a gyro anymore, because it's almost always packaged, processed junk that doesn't taste one bit like what you get in the Middle East. (Restaurant owners, however, adore it, because it's cheap and hassle-free.) So when the proprietor told me his gyros are homemade and authentically prepared (a mix of beef and lamb alternately layered on a vertical rotisserie), I jumped at the chance. So should you--it's very satisfying.

(The proprietor smilingly related an instructive gyro tale. While getting ready to open, he was visited by a gyro representative, pitching his packaged product. The proprietor asked him to taste his restaurant's version, daring him to say the company version was better. He couldn't.)

Sultan kebab is also beautifully fashioned, ground beef and lamb marinated in onion juice for flavor, then shaped around a skewer and grilled. If some genius ever puts this on a bun and starts franchising, fast-food burger joints might disappear.

Chicken kebab will have you clucking with delight. The trick is keeping the boneless white meat from getting dried out, and the kitchen is up to the juicy task. The kitchen puts together superb kofta, too, ground beef fragrantly blended with onions and parsley.

Other kebabs aren't quite as interesting. Shish kebab, cubes of beef teamed with onions and peppers, has basic beef appeal, no more. Lamb kebab isn't quite as tender or flavorful as it could be. And shrimp kebab is outright dull.

All platters come with basmati rice, a perfumed grain that boosts any Middle Eastern dish.

Desserts are sweet and simple. The creamy, heavily scented rice pudding is not too heavy. Baklava is routine. The best way to finish up is to sip the sweetened Turkish coffee. It's not quite as sludgy as what you'll find in Istanbul, but there's no mistaking the caffeine jolt.

Taste of Mediterranean Restaurant doesn't pretend to be anything more than what it is: a small, neighborhood ethnic joint serving tasty fare from the homeland at reasonable cost. In the grand culinary scheme, I suppose it's no big deal. But if you live around here, it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Phoenix City Grille:
Flank steak
Cedar-plank salmon

Taste of Mediterranean Restaurant:
Chicken kebab
Sultan kebab/gyro combo


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