Mex mix: A fiesta of Mexican fare at the Madera Grille.
Mex mix: A fiesta of Mexican fare at the Madera Grille.

Oeste Side Story

Madera Grille, 6601 West Bethany Home, Glendale, 623-847-1847. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The west-side restaurant scene could use some help. Fine dining? You'd have better luck scouring the avenues looking for the Loch Ness monster. Meanwhile, every chain restaurant on the planet maintains an outpost in the region. If it weren't for a few ethnic storefronts, west-siders with sophisticated palates might find starving to death an agreeable option.

Fortunately, a couple of new Mexican places, Madera Grille and Vallarta's Mexican Grill & Seafood, are adding some sheen to the west side's ethnic luster.

Madera Grille, in fact, would add luster to any location. After they get off their knees in grateful thanks, west-siders with a taste for outstanding south-of-the-border fare should get over here as fast as the speed limit allows.

Diners won't find a menu filled with the usual Az-Mex mix of suspects: If you yearn for nachos, tacos and burritos, save yourself a trip and head for any fast-food outlet whose name ends in ". . . berto's." You also won't see servers dressed in Mexican peasant blouses or hear ayay-ay music blasting from the jukebox. Heck, you won't even get a basket of chips.

What you will find are the kind of regional Mexican dishes that show off the country's rich culinary heritage, delivered at wallet-friendly prices. How impressed am I? It's not too much of a stretch to think of Madera Grille as Such Is Life, on a budget.

Location is a big reason that costs are down. Set in a new shopping strip at the highly unfashionable southeast corner of 67th Avenue and Bethany Home, Madera Grille isn't exactly on restaurant row. Then again, the proprietors aren't paying Scottsdale rents, either.

But they haven't stinted on the look. Inside, the place is neat and spiffy clean, attractively done up in comforting earth tones. Slow-moving fans whir from the ceiling. Shelves along the walls are lined with all sorts of knickknacks. Painted canvas curtains shade the windows, while the tables are covered with oilcloth. Light jazz from KYOT comes over the speaker system. The restaurant is so nicely designed that you might actually forget you're overlooking a shopping-strip parking lot.

The owners aren't newcomers to the restaurant business, having worked in the past at nonculinary sides of the trade. But they are new to the food side of the operation. Happily, they've brought in a talented chef who can relieve all their anxieties about what comes out of the kitchen.

There's a philosophy at work at Madera Grille: fresh, made-daily-from-scratch food, prepared without lard or fat, and with no microwaving or frying. It's not a philosophy you often run into west of I-17, or in Mexican restaurants. But it's a philosophy that's easy to embrace.

Because Madera Grille is a no-fry zone, chips are out. In this instance, however, I wish the kitchen would relax its principles. That's because the trio of ravishing salsas are as good as any in the Valley. The chunky pico de gallo, the smoky chipotle and the zesty tomatillo are ideally suited for chip-dipping. My advice: Order the salsas to go, and buy a bag of chips on the way home.

Several appetizers will take your mind off the lack of chips. Think of chilaquiles as a tortilla casserole, a kind of Mexican lasagna. Corn tortillas are layered with tangy queso fresco, a fresh Mexican white cheese, and pico de gallo, then baked. It's a simple dish, and very effective.

The cheese fondues, made with a stretchy blend of mozzarella and Chihuahua, are good enough to make appetizer-sharing a competitive sport. I especially enjoyed the model topped with chorizo, whose spicy bite provides a nice foil to the mild cheeses.

You don't see nopales often enough at local Mexican restaurants. It's the "paddle" part of a prickly pear cactus, and it's extremely healthful. Madera Grille fashions a salad out of it, freshening the nopales with lemon and olive oil, and touching everything up with tomato, onion, cilantro and queso fresco.

The homey main dishes burst with fresh, vibrant flavors. I imagine a talented Mexican grandmother might cook like this, if she'd had some culinary training. Why can't Mexican food always taste this good?

I love the three stews. Cochinita pibil, a Yucatán pork dish, is a marvel. You can't miss the sweet, tangy bite of the annatto seed sauce, fashioned with oranges and vinegar. The pork itself, meanwhile, is almost unnaturally lean, juicy and tender. Beef ranchero gets a boost from another seriously delicious sauce, this one put together with onions, tomatoes, peppers and spices. Once again, the meat quality is exceptional -- I didn't encounter a speck of fat or gristle. And though the lamb stew seems more French than Mexican, I couldn't get too worked up over the point of origin. That's because the chef simmers lovely chunks of leg of lamb in an herb-rich red wine sauce, and gooses it up with carrots and celery. When the weather turns cool, this hearty dish will make you feel warm on the inside.

Mole (pronounced mo-lay) is one of the Mexican kitchen's great glories. Madera Grille's version rivals any around. The menu says it's made from nearly 30 different ingredients -- chiles, chocolate, spices -- and I believe it. This sauce is nuanced, complex and sophisticated, ranging over the entire flavor-note scale. The chicken breast it's spooned over is almost superfluous.

In another restaurant, the enchiladas might be the stars of the show. Here, they're only supporting players. Both the cheese and chicken models are thick and flavorful, and they're draped with a tomatillo sauce that will keep you engaged until the last bite.

If you're into packing animal protein, go for the top sirloin. The kitchen has secured access to high-quality cattle, and the beef is tantalizingly seasoned with lemon and pepper.

I'm even impressed with the chicken. Madera Grille's bird can fly. It's marinated in olive oil, garlic and spices, then grilled over mesquite flames. The interior is moist and succulent, while the skin, beautifully crisp and fragrant, makes nutritional guidelines easy to ignore.

The one ordinary item? It's the vestida, a pork chop whose luscious pasilla chile sauce and coating of Chihuahua cheese can't disguise the chewy meat.

The kitchen pays as much attention to the go-withs as it does to everything else. The rice is first-rate, and the beans -- soupy whole pintos topped with queso fresco -- are even better.

There's even an effort to do something with dessert. The flan is very rich, with lots of burnt sugar snap. And the intense chocolate cake puts a heavy exclamation point on the meal.

I admire Madera Grille's courage, setting up on the west side. Let's hope the neighborhood has the sense to take advantage of its good fortune.

Vallarta's Mexican Grill & Seafood, 2030 West Camelback, Phoenix, 602-242-8559. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.

I never have trouble kick-starting my appetite when it's time to eat Mexican seafood. It doesn't take much to get me fantasizing about retiring to Rocky Point, surrounded by seafood cocktails, seven seas stew and fish in Veracruz sauce.

You can't exactly see the sea gulls wheeling overhead or watch the boats pull into port at Vallarta's. But you might plausibly pretend you can.

About six months old, this tidy place, draped with red, white and green streamers, dishes out commendable south-of-the-border aquatic fare.

Catch up on Spanish-language soap operas on the two televisions that are constantly in use, while you munch fresh crispy chips and sip an icy Mexican brew.

They'll help pass the time until you dig into one of Vallarta's seafood cocktails, served in bowls filled with a sea of tomato broth. Best of the bunch is the coctel de ceviche, fashioned from cooked diced shrimp brightened with cilantro, lemon and cucumber. It has just a bit more energy than the campechana model, which offers a mild mix of shrimp, octopus, clams and oysters.

It's easy to drop your line on the menu. Just look for the cod or shrimp dish that has the word "Vallarta" immediately after. It describes the house special sauce, which will smack you upside the head with flavor. The kitchen uses a heady mix of butter, lemon, garlic and a substantial dose of tequila. The result is extremely rich and extremely tasty.

Culichi is another word to keep an eye out for. It means your seafood will come smothered in a tangy tomatillo sauce, and smoothed with a layer of jack cheese.

If you like to see small beads of sweat form on your brow, opt for the camarones picosos. You get 10 medium shrimp (not "large," as the menu promises) sautéed in butter and covered with a spicy red chile that commands your attention. Those same beads take just a few moments longer to form if you choose the seven seas stew. This meal-in-a-bowl tosses together shrimp, octopus, fish and crab in a chile-spiked broth, whose heat attacks your system after a couple of minutes.

The land-based dishes aren't nearly as compelling as the seafood. The mole has tempting sweet, spicy and bitter notes, but it's not as deep as Madera Grille's version. Nor is the chicken breast it's spooned on as tender as it ought to be. Enchiladas mixtas are simply three chicken enchiladas coated with three unremarkable sauces. Shredded beef tacos don't get beyond routine. And La Favorita, a sampler platter featuring a chile relleno, a tamale and beef gordita, won't create any lasting memories, either.

Sure, Phoenix is hundreds of miles from the sea. Still, when the kitchen focuses on the ocean, Vallarta's can feel like a day at the beach.


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