Nola's Cocina Mexicana, Biltmore Fashion Park, 24th Street and Camelback, Phoenix, 957-8393. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9p.m.
Does anyone really believe there's such a thingas complete objectivity? I know judges andscientists are supposed to be perfectly impartial. Food critics, too. But aren't our views colored by the expectations we bring to every encounter?
Blind dates always seem homely because guys expect a Cindy Crawford look-alike to open the door. If your boss doesn't fire you for making a mistake, you might be gulled into believing that deep down he really has a heart. And when you tackle your taxes and discover you're entitled to a small refund, you may even have warm, benevolent thoughts about the IRS.
My latest experience at a couple of Mexican restaurants was undoubtedly colored by the set of expectations I carried to them. Nola's, in the tony Biltmore Fashion Park, has recently been operating under the direction of Paul Fleming, who runs two of this town's better restaurants, Ruth's Chris Steak House and Z''Tejas Grill.
Both the location and management suggested an evening of interesting fare, smoothly served in a chic, comfortable setting. On the other hand, I expected nothing but the usual combo-plate suspects from Andale, a new south-of-the-border place that's taken over a defunct Tony Roma's on East Camelback Road.
I've tried to analyze my disappointment in Nola's. That's because, even at the time, I thought most of the food was very good. I still think so now. But I've concluded that Nola's is not a very good restaurant.
The setting is part of the problem. First, the look. I can handle the reproduction of a peeling Mayan fresco at the far end of the room, even if it does clash with the abstract paintings on the side walls. But what on Earth are those bizarre, ladderlike tubes which balance on stacked-stone pilings or hang ominously from the ceiling? This is high-tech design without purpose. I asked the waiter about them. He rolled his eyes and said, "Weird."
Of course, you could always avert your eyes and gaze at your dining companions or your plate. However, unless you wear earmuffs, it's much harder to avoid the television over the bar or the relentlessly blaring rock music--both formidable impediments to digestion and conversation.
The service is also out of whack. We get another table's dishes. We don't get fresh cutlery with every course. Entrees are up before we've finished the appetizers. Busboys hover and snatch plates the moment we stick a fork into the last bite. This feed-'em-and-move-'em-out staff either has been trained at the "Evelyn Wood Speed-Serving Institute" or is on amphetamines. You'll spend less time here over a three-course meal than you will getting fitted for eyeglasses at LensCrafters.
While the setting and service are underwhelming, the food isn't: Many of Nola's dishes sport genuine Mexican flair.
The appetizers are particularly outstanding. Good thing, too, because Nola's doesn't believe in free chips. It doesn't believe in decent margaritas, either. Thetop-shelf version--1800, Cointreau and lime juice--was so watery it couldn't give a newborn a buzz. Save your five bucks.
Tamale sope con pato is the best of the starters, a mix of roast duck, black beans and cheese stuffed into a baked tamale crust. Although this lily doesn't need additional gilding, a zesty red chile garlic sauce furnishes a wonderful boost.
The robust chile relleno is eggy enough to be an omelet, but it has real bite. It's moistened with a smooth green chile sauce that hits the whole scale of flavor notes.
Green corn tamale fans won't find anything wrong with Nola's model; it's not too sweet and has just the right texture. You can even gnaw on ribs--four meaty specimens aided by a tart barbecue sauce juiced up by a chile kick.
The main-dish menu is divided into two sections. One is Platos Mexicanos featuring familiar dishes like tacos, burros and flautas. But who comes to Biltmore Fashion Park for tacos, burros and flautas? We opted instead for the "Especialidades," figuring these were where the chef would be more likely to shine.
Well, sometimes he does--and sometimes he doesn't. The ahi tuna, the most expensive entree at $13.95, is flawless, a gorgeous piece of medium-rare fish crusted with pumpkin seeds and laced with a dazzlingly fruity cascabel chile sauce. It's a beautiful melding of flavors. Too bad the accompanying rice and squash weren't equally vigorous.
Almost as good are the enchiladas lined with shrimp and papaya. The menu description sounds great: "fresh blue corn tortillas with seared shrimp and papaya with cumin black bean and tomatillo sauces." There's a beguiling contrast between the sweet papaya and tart sauces. However, the kitchen apparently doles out the shrimp with tweezers. I found just a few shards in my two enchiladas, barely enough to fill a thimble.
Pollo Relleno a la Maya is somewhat redeemed by an exotic, complex mole sauce that makes no allowances for gringo tastes. But I couldn't find any evidence of the masa, chorizo and chiles the chicken breast was purportedly stuffed with.
Carnitas, however, can't be redeemed. It's a none-too-generous pile of tasteless shredded pork heaped on top of leftover lettuce.
You may be inclined to order dessert, if only because at this point you'll probably be only 30 minutes into the meal. The housemade "rustic pear pie" is worth hanging around for, a warm, flaky pie crust topped with pear and good vanilla ice cream. In comparison, the coconut flan is merely routine.
Nola's has pretty well solved the food part of the restaurant equation. But until it cuts down on the noise and fixes the service, the numbers won't add up.
Andale Mexican Grill, 1812 East Camelback, Phoenix, 265-9112. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11a.m. to 11 p.m.
Is there anything to distinguish Andale from hundreds of other Mexican restaurants in town?
Yes and no. It certainly doesn't sport any breakthrough features in design. Andale goes forthe Mexican cantina look, with walls of corrugated metal and a ceiling fashioned from wooden poles. Ceramic parrots, Bud Light piatas andshelves of knickknacks adorn the two diningrooms. And just so there's no mistaking this place for, say, an Italian restaurant, loud, ayyay-yay mariachi music gets continually piped in.
Andale relies on the menu to distinguish itself from the Mexican-restaurant pack. Along with familiar Sonoran fare, the kitchen also sends out a few New Mexican-style Mexican dishes. And I'm pleased to report that just about everything that came our way turned out to be cheap, filling and tasty.
Chips and drinks are a pleasant way to start off. The chips are fresh and free, two of my favorite adjectives. They're accompanied by an excellent bean dip and two kinds of salsas. The house margarita, meanwhile, comes in a 27 ounce glass for $5.95, enough to share. You won't get premium spirits, but you will get an alcohol jolt.
Soups are an underappreciated part of Mexican cuisine. The two models here, albondigas and chicken tortilla, are both first-rate. The albondigas brings five hefty meatballs in a flavorful broth stocked withrice, carrot and celery. The chicken tortilla is thick with poultry and packs a sharp chile bite. Squeeze in some lime to soften the impact.
If you want to reach your Recommended Annual Allowance of butterfat for 1996 before the spring equinox, you might consider scooping your chips into the queso fundido starter. It's a skillet filled with acres of melted jack cheese, flecked with bits of jalapeno and chorizo, flamed at the table. After a few tasty bites, the nutritional shortcomings become easier to ignore.
Main dishes are just as satisfying. Carne adobada, hunks of juicy, marinated porkloin, is skillfully prepared. The dishhas the deep heat associated with NewMexican cooking--not an instantaneous scorch, but a slow-simmering burn that shoots out flames of pleasure after several seconds. Terrific rice (why can't all Mexican-restaurant rice taste thisgood?) and whole black beans toppedwith white cheese round off this platter.
Chile colorado is prepared like a stew, served in a bowl. You get big cubes of gristle-free, if not optimally tender, beef submerged under a red chile sauce that can put a hurtin' on the unwary. Eat this with a spoon, or ladle the beef and fixings--jalape–os, onions, sour cream, cheese--onto warm flour tortillas. You can't go wrong with either method.
At $9.50, steak picado is the most expensive dish, but the price tag shouldn't deter hungry carnivores. That's because they'll get an ample portion of diced beef, crisply grilled, topped with onions, tomatoes, cheese and a mild green chile sauce.
Fans of animal protein can also get their daily dose from New Mexican-style enchiladas--triple-layered corn tortillas that can be stuffed with machaca beef and punched up with red chile sauce.
Looking for pure heft? Check out the chicken poblano, a zingy green chile crammed with lots of white-meat chicken, all encased in a fluffy egg coating.
Finish up with sopaipillas, bready pillows of fried dough that New Mexicans eat with the main dishes, but which generally show up in these parts as dessert, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.
If you don't feel like driving all the way to Albuquerque (or even to Los Dos Molinos in South Phoenix or the New Mexican Cafe in Glendale) for a taste of New Mexico, Andale stands out as a worthy neighborhood alternative.
sope con pato
"Rustic pear pie"
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