Mexed Review

Las Cazuelas, 5150 West McDowell, Phoenix, 278-4885. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

It's generally understood in the scientific community that biology is destiny.

First distinction: man or woman. Then tall or short, smart or slow, beautiful or ugly, athletic or klutzy, and an almost infinite variety of other poles and points in between.

It's no doubt true that even after they've been genetically imprinted, people still have ample opportunity to shape their fate. After all, certain qualities that define who we are, like honest behavior or great wealth, have little to do with our individual genetic predispositions. Maybe someday I could be as saintly as Mother Teresa or hit a PowerBall jackpot. But no amount of luck, will power or effort on my part will ever turn me into Miss America, the Suns' starting center or a rocket scientist.

When the subject is the Valley's low-cost ethnic restaurants, it's generally understood in the culinary community that geography is destiny. In high-rent Scottsdale, for example, your chances of finding cheap, tasty Mexican food are about the same as finding a child prodigy among the offspring of Arkansas first cousins. Sure, the possibility exists, but experience suggests that, in both cases, you'd be better off looking for more fertile breeding grounds elsewhere.

The west side, on the other hand, offers just the right soil to sustain good-quality, budget-priced, south-of-the-border dishes. In this part of town, the cost of doing business is low, while neighborhood knowledge and interest in Mexican food are high.

Recent visits to Las Cazuelas on the west side and Frank & Lupe's in Scottsdale furnished additional evidence to support the ethnic-restaurant geography theory.

Although it's set on the edge of a large shopping-strip eyesore, Las Cazuelas is no run-down joint. It's quite neat and spiffy, which is maybe why the place attracts so many families. The brightly decorated dining area is covered with pretty tile work, some of it hand painted. Fannies rest comfortably in upholstered chairs. And each table sports a vase with artificial flowers.

Of course, you can't escape the usual Mexican-restaurant design touches. The television is tuned to a Spanish-language station; low-decibel mariachi music is piped in; beer pennants are strung across the room; and serapes are tacked up at intervals along the wall.

You won't want to escape from the fare. It's fresh. It's cheap. And for the most part, it's very, very tasty.

The warm, salty, crunchy chips give every indication that they're only a few minutes removed from the cooking process. Mouth-tingling red and green chile salsas make dipping an attractive option. Ask for an icy-cold Mexican brew or a potent margarita to wash it all down. You're about to discover life can be not only good, it can also be affordable.

That's because nothing on this menu goes for more than $9.49. And that item, a campechana cocktail, is irresistible. It's a big glass loaded with shrimp and the tenderest octopus my bicuspids have encountered in a long time. Chunks of avocado, cucumbers, onions and cilantro provide additional gilding. (You can get smaller amounts of the same ingredients for about one third the cost by ordering the ceviche tostada.)

Las Cazuelas has a way with seafood. The Costa Brava is exceptional, a seven seas stew fully stocked with shrimp, octopus, squid, clams, scallops, crab and hunks of snapper. All this aquatic life is accompanied by potatoes, carrots and squash in a lip-smacking broth that's zipped up with a large dose of hot red chile. Squeeze in some lime to dampen the flames, and I promise you'll be as happy as Shamu at feeding time.

Camarónes rancheros also presses the right buttons. The kitchen sends out nine high-quality butterflied shrimp in a hissing skillet, surrounded by sizzling onions, peppers and tomatoes, at a friendly west-side price. Consider dropping your line as well for the pescado a la diabla, a large, lovely fillet of flaky red snapper, lightly breaded with a spicy red chile coating. The waiter tries to steer gringos away from this platter, but veteran Mexican-food fans shouldn't have any trouble handling the heat.

The one ocean-based dish to avoid? That would be the massive fish burrito, fashioned from rubbery fish sticks slathered with a dull white sauce.

The cook shows flashes of skill with landlubber fare, too. The chile verde plate could tempt a vegetarian: You'll find fork-tender cubes of moist pork smoothed with a subtle green chile sauce. You'll also have a swine time with the carnitas burrito, which features lots of thin-sliced grilled meat.

If you prefer beef and want change back from a five, consider the carne asada torta. It's a big sandwich on a fresh Mexican roll, stuffed with grilled beef, guacamole, cheese, lettuce and tomato.

Combo-plate fans will get a thrill from the chile relleno/enchilada platter. The relleno is particularly luscious, not too eggy and very cheesy, with an effective chile bite.

And don't pass up the rice and beans that come with most dishes. Las Cazuelas doesn't pretend these cheese-draped beans are lard-free or good for you. On the other hand, you don't have to pretend that you're enjoying them, either. The flavorful rice, meanwhile, has a pleasing, peppery kick.

Looking for inexpensive, well-prepared, nongringo Mexican fare? Head out to Las Cazuelas. It's destiny.

Frank & Lupe's Old Mexico, 4121 North Marshall Way, Scottsdale, 990-9844. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Breakfast and Lunch, Sunday, 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

If you were bound, gagged and blindfolded and dropped into Frank & Lupe's for dinner, you'd know you were in Scottsdale the moment you saw the back of the menu. That's because it celebrates the healthful virtues of Mexican cuisine.

That's right. Avocado is "effective in lowering cholesterol." The fiber in beans "aids in absorption of sugars into the bloodstream." Cilantro "contains vitamins A and C." Someday, someone is going to open a Mexican restaurant in this part of town and seat the neighborhood's health-obsessed diners on exercise bicycles. That way they'll be able to pedal away calories and burn fat grams while they eat.

Actually, I can understand why Frank & Lupe's plays up the health angle. That's because, when it comes to taste, its New Mexican-style Mexican food simply isn't in the same class as some of its Valley competitors'.

Looks, however, are another story. The restaurant has taken over the location formerly occupied by Marche Gourmet, and it's become a colorful, cheery spot. The main room is the former terrace area, now enclosed with a hardwood ceiling. Carnations in vases sit on the tables, while white lace curtains line the windows. A strip of garden set into the floor contains real plants and fake flowers. And Mexican knickknacks are everywhere: a hanging parrot, decorative casseroles, a flowered hat and a south-of-the-border-style mirror in a painted metal frame.

The proprietors have also done a wonderful job keeping prices down. Most dishes are in the $5 to $6 range. I just wish they tasted a bit better.

If you want to munch on a basket of free chips while waiting for your meal, you've come to the wrong place. Frank & Lupe's charges a buck and a quarter. In fact, if you want to munch on anything before your meal, you've come to the wrong place. That's because, according to the waitress, just about everything else on the small appetizer list--cheese sticks, stuffed jalapenos, deep-fried mushrooms--comes out of a frozen bag. The nachos supreme don't. But the lackluster pile of chips covered with cheese, beans, a bit of ground beef, sour cream and a tablespoon of guacamole won't set too many pulses racing.

Neither will most of the fare. New Mexican Mexican food, when done right, can be mesmerizing. But almost nothing here lives up to New Mexico's license-plate motto, "Land of Enchantment."

The stuffed sopaipilla comes closest. That's because Frank & Lupe's makes first-rate sopaipillas--puffy pillows of steaming fried dough, usually filled with honey to soften the sting of hot New Mexican cuisine. When they're crammed with carne adobada, tender cubes of beef laced with a pungent red chile sauce, the results can be just as satisfying.

Chicken tamales, studded with green chiles, also deliver some of the big flavors New Mexican food is known for. You won't need too much encouragement to polish off these fresh, moist tamales. Likewise, shredded beef tacos are also competently, if not spectacularly, done.

But too many dishes have too little going for them. Enchiladas Del Mar is the worst offender. "Three enchiladas with shrimp and crab," promises the menu. Sounds good, right? But the seafood turns out to be the dreaded "krab," and teeny shrimp the size of a pinkie fingernail. I'd toss this platter back.

Fajitas are Tex-Mex, not New Mexican. But I'm not one to worry about taxonomy, especially if the food is good. Unfortunately, it isn't. Part of the fajita fun is waiting for a sizzling skillet adorned with onions and peppers to cool down, and entertaining yourself with little condiment bowls of salsa, cheese, tomato and guacamole. But there's no sizzling skillet, no condiments. Instead, the chicken fajitas here is just a lifeless plate of snoozy grilled poultry, next to rice and beans.

Other platters are equally unmemorable. The stacked enchiladas, the taquitos and chile relleno simply don't make much of an impression.

Dessert? Why bother? Again, the waitress told us both the cheesecake and churros were made elsewhere.

Set along the edge of Scottsdale's busy gallery district, Frank & Lupe's won't have a hard time attracting a lot of first-time, walk-in customers. Attracting repeat business, however, may prove to be somewhat more daunting.

Las Cazuelas:
Carne asada torta
Chile verde plate
Costa Brava
Camarones rancheros

Frank & Lupe's Old Mexico:
Nachos supreme
Stuffed sopaipilla
Shredded beef tacos
Chicken fajitas


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