La Guadalupana, 2243 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 254-5114. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought that mankind continually struggled with two conflicting impulses. On the one hand, he said, we yearn for adventure and risk, the rush of excitement that's often recalled in later years as "feeling alive." On the other hand, we also crave comfort and security, because we know the world's a dangerous place and bad things can happen at any time.
Nietzsche was a lot more sympathetic to the risk-takers, people willing to go beyond the limiting conventions of bourgeois life and Christian morality. We cheated ourselves, he believed, by playing it safe.
The two conflicting impulses Nietzsche saw in man are also apparent in restaurants. The timid masses continue to settle for safe gringo fare, drained of risk and taste, at places like B.F.I.T. (The initials stand, laughably, for Best Fajitas in Town.)
The more adventurous types love the real ethnic gems, the kind of places where the fearful, take-no-chances McMiddle classes wouldn't think of setting foot.
If Nietzsche were ever reincarnated as a Valley restaurant reviewer, he'd probably scour the town looking for great ethnic joints. Every once in a great while, he might get lucky and stumble on one, like the south-of-the-border La Guadalupana. Here, he could become a gastronomic bermensch, reveling in a meal fit for the gods.
La Guadalupana certainly doesn't look like it's housing any bermenschen. The restaurant occupies an unprepossessing cottage, with battered woodwork and grim, boarded-up doors at what once was the 16th Street entrance. Two rainbow-hued serapes and red, white and green decorations hanging from the ceiling inject a note of gaiety and color. So does the Spanish-language jukebox, set at Concorde-level decibels. The menu is bilingual, Spanish on one side, English on the other. Of course, when English speakers see something called "Caldo Tlalpe¤o" translated as "Tlalpe¤o Soup" on the other, it won't do them much good. Sweet, friendly servers, some with limited English, do what they can to guide linguistically challenged patrons through the menu. La Guadalupana serves Mexican and Salvadoran fare. It's all cheap--nothing over eight bucks. And most of it is spectacularly good. The small Salvadoran list--seven dishes--isn't as extensive as Eliana's full Salvadoran menu. But the quality is right up there. Pupusas are marvelous, distinctive corn masa patties stuffed with cheese and a sprinkling of pork rinds. If you require a larger dose of pork rinds, you can get your Recommended Annual Allowance by ordering the yuca con chicharon. It's a big plateful of crunchy, salty, fried rinds, accompanied by thick-cut, deep-fried yuca, a potatolike tuber also known as cassava or manioc. If you're getting a physical tomorrow, this is not the platter you should be eating tonight.
The Salvadoran corn tamales are also unusually tasty, sweet, dense and fresh. Try them with an order of fried plantains, moistened with pur‚ed beans and sour cream. The Mexican fare is outstanding. Forget the calendar and order the caldo Tlalpe¤o. It's one of the best soups I've had in the Valley, thick with shredded chicken, squash, potatoes, carrots, avocado and lots of deep-red chipotle, smoked jalape¤o peppers. This broth packs a fiery wallop, which can be marginally tempered by a squeeze of lemon. If the chile heat does get you sweating like a snowbird in August, try focusing your mind on the incredibly cheap three-dollar tag the proprietors charge for this meal-in-a-bowl. That should help cool you off.
If you want something more conventionally refreshing, consider the shrimp cocktail. You get a bucketful of firm shrimp in a soothing tomato liquid, laced with onions, cilantro and avocado.
What really turned my head here was the quesadilla de huitlacoche. In Mayan, huitlacoche means "food of the gods." Americans, less sensitive to its culinary possibilities, call it "corn smut." South of the border, it's a delicacy. In the States, I've run across huitlacoche in a fancy Southwestern restaurant in New York, and here in town at La Hacienda, the gourmet Mexican restaurant at the Scottsdale Princess Resort. Nietzschean risk-takers will be rewarded by its mild, sublime fungal flavor. Others may not.
Almost as interesting, and at least as filling, are the tortas, thick sandwiches on Mexican rolls. The Cuban version (there are seven other models) comes jammed with ham, sliced pork leg, Mexican cheese and huge chunks of avocado. Once you down this baby, old favorites like ham and cheese or a quarter-pounder are going to look pretty tame. Even the usual suspects, like burritos and tacos, are exceptional. That's because you can stuff them with ingredients like carne asada, tender grilled beef and roasted pork glazed with red chile. (For real Nietzscheans, the menu offers lengua and cabeza--that's tongue and head--as well.) Mole enchiladas are also wonderful, cheese-stuffed tortillas coated with an enchanting mole sauce redolent with smoked chiles.
La Guadalupana dishes out several hearty main dishes. The filete de pescado, fried fish fillet, brings an enormous slab of freshly battered cod. The roasted half-chicken is beautifully moist inside, crispy crunchy outside, and served with rice, cheese-sprinkled beans, sliced tomatoes and jalape¤os. When you factor in the cost, $5.50, you see it hardly pays to eat at home.
The kitchen isn't quite as adept at timing the dishes as it is at preparing them. The concept of "courses" hasn't taken hold; if, say, your burrito is ready before your soup, out it comes.
But, frankly, this is nit-picking. Adventurous folks who love ethnic food won't care. And even a staff outfitted in tuxedos, trained to refold napkins and deliver food at exactly the right moment, won't lure those frightened souls for whom a combo plate at a Mexican chain is a walk on the culinary edge.
"One is most often punished for one's virtues," Nietzsche wrote. If that's the case, I can predict what's going to happen to La Guadalupana: This quiet restaurant is going to find itself punished by swarms of people clamoring for terrific, budget-priced south-of-the-border fare.
B.F.I.T., 1982 West Main, Mesa, 242-0111. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
B.F.I.T. stands for Best Fajitas in Town. Are they? Nope.
This is the kind of place that makes me scratch my head in wonderment. Here we are in the heart of the Southwest, just a few hours from Mexico. But, instead of skillfully putting together dishes featuring fresh regional ingredients, B.F.I.T. sends out nondescript platters that make no lingering impression. There's nothing remotely distinctive about the food, which seems designed to play in Peoria--Illinois. Most everything is aimed at the tastes, such as they are, of transplanted Midwesterners.
B.F.I.T. looks more like a franchising concept than a serious south-of-the-border eating destination. The walls are colorfully painted with Southwestern icons: coyotes, cactus, lizards. A couple of near-life-size cutouts of a rope-twirling cowboy and cowgirl hang at one end of the room. A fajita grill stands in an island in the center, so you can watch the cooks at work.
But there's not much to look at. The appetizers are almost all deep-fat fried, and entirely institutional. Check them out, if you dare: fried zucchini, fried mushrooms, fried chicken strips, fried mozzarella sticks, fried onion strips, fried jalape¤os and fried green chile egg rolls. I have nothing against fried appetizers--if they're fresh, greaseless and tasty. These, however, have nothing going for them. Neither, surprisingly, do the fajitas. The three we tried were very disappointing.
The problem doesn't lie with the animal protein. A half-pound of beef or pork comes competently grilled and sizzled, with no fat or gristle. (Scallops, however, are those tiny bay variety, and they have almost no flavor.) So what's wrong with the fajitas? Just about everything else.
The platters contain massive, massive, amounts of unappetizing, oily fried onions. And, except for a couple of tiny strips of pepper, nothing else. There's nothing inviting about the looks of this skillet. Alongside is a bowl of diced tomatoes, sour cream and over-the-hill guacamole. No rice. No beans. Not even salsa. You'd think a place specializing in fajitas would knock you out with the presentation, quality and variety of its ingredients. Not here.
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The other main dishes also barely nudged the needle on my excitement meter. There's a grilled shrimp plate featuring eight small critters, served with a mound of ho-hum rice and mixed vegetables. At $14.95, you're not getting much bang for your buck.
I suspect the chile relleno recipe wasn't lifted from a Mexican cookbook. But then again, it's not intended for Mexicans. A thickly battered, mild green chile comes stuffed with unseasoned ground beef and Cheddar cheese, oddly accompanied by a side of cheese sauce. It's dull. So is the huge chimichanga, which is no different from any of a thousand versions you've had.
Desserts? Why bother? The kitchen doesn't--nothing's homemade or particularly appealing.
Timid and tame, B.F.I.T. provides a Southwestern-Mexican food experience for people who really aren't interested in this kind of fare. That's not my idea of culinary philosophy.