REBEL WITH A COCINA
La Pila, 2020 North Central, Phoenix, 252-7007. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. The prospect of dining at a Mexican restaurant makes me feel just like I do whenever I have to attend one of my kids' innumerable piano recitals. Sure, it's theoretically possible that some talented tyke will wow us with a technically flawless and thoughtfully interpreted Beethoven sonata. But it's much more likely that we'll have to endure so many painful poundings of Fr Elise that the composer's deafness will become more enviable and less tragic by the minute. My Mexican-restaurant outings seem to follow similar lines. Of course, it's possible that we'll be astounded by imaginative, south-of-the-border fare conjured up by inventive chefs who make full use of Mexico's rich bounty and culinary heritage. But it's much more likely we'll have to endure the same old one-note melody of tacos, enchiladas and tamales. And now, we have just been told, this potpourri of cheese, lard and red meat is all but lethal. Caramba!
Every once in a while, however, it's possible to be pleasantly surprised. That's what happened at Norman Fierros' newest restaurant, La Pila.
Unfortunately, the place is about as easy to find as the Lost Dutchman mine. It's buried in the basement of a Central Avenue office building, next to a health club. I appreciate commercial understatement as much as anyone, but a few more signs would not only be helpful but reassuring. That's because after 6 p.m., the area is just about empty of human foot traffic. Both the elevator ride and the trip down the empty staircase seem a bit spooky. Perhaps I have an overheated imagination, but I half-expected to see a grinning Rod Serling waiting to greet me when I ended the descent. And, in a way, that would have been a fitting touch. Because when it comes to Mexican food, La Pila is, like the Twilight Zone, a wondrous land of imagination. You wouldn't know it from the decor, however. Despite the vaguely art-deco design and a few colorful touches--bright paintings, papier-mch horses, piped-in Latin music--the subdued La Pila still feels a bit like a sterile, office-building dining room. While there's no particular reason Mexican restaurants have to be "festive," that's how we've been conditioned to expect them. Here, you have as much chance of running into strolling mariachis and gaily dressed servers as you do a pastrami sandwich. But who can think about pastrami when you can immediately dig into fresh chips accompanied by three gorgeous, homemade salsas? The smoky chipotle, tangy tomatillo and thick pico de gallo give the first intimations that this kitchen didn't get its recipes from a Taco Bell manual. The appetizers helped prove the point. At first, I was sorely disappointed to learn that the oysters pesto starter had been 86ed that evening. The thought of a half-dozen fresh oysters, broiled and garnished with cilantro pesto and Mexican cheese, had gotten my appetite juices flowing. But the alternatives furnished gratifying consolation. Shrimp ceviche, in icy lime juice accented with tomatoes, cilantro, onions and jalapeo, was a refreshing summer delight. The skewers of grilled marinated shrimp sported the fragrance of the sea. And the pollo adobado featured big chunks of mouth-watering chicken breast zipped in a fragrant, red-chile marinade. Next came the most interesting dinner salad I've had in a while. Instead of the usual pile of dead lettuce, the chef fashioned a plate of finely chopped greens mixed with red grapes, Mexican white cheese and caramelized walnuts. It was so good that we didn't even bother dressing it with the spunky lemon vinaigrette that the kitchen thoughtfully sent out on the side. The main dishes are subtly but richly flavored. The one-dimensional chile heat that often afflicts Mexican food is absent here. Instead, diners can savor a complex blend of tastes and textures. For instance, how many Valley Mexican restaurants whip up a duck confit (a French preparation of long-simmered duck preserved in its own juices), served in an appropriately rich jalapeo sauce with roasted garlic? This is Mexican food with flair, miles more interesting than the usual Sonoran snoozers. Chicken mole is also expertly done. This inventive platter surrounds boneless breast of chicken with toasted peanuts and a mound of creamy rice, all drizzled in an exotic mole sauce. All good Mexican chefs have their own mole recipes, and the version here is dark, pungent and sublime. Shrimp asado isn't quite so foreign and mysterious, but it works. It features a sizzling skillet piled high with six large, meaty grilled shrimp, accompanied by assorted veggies and several absolutely delicious pieces of freshly grilled corn on the cob. What a delightful contrast to the drab shrimp fajitas you see all over town. And if you lack all sense of adventure, La Pila is still worth a visit. Just order the entomatadas, two enchiladas fashioned with a Mexican cheese that the menu accurately compares to a sweet, creamy ricotta. They float in a light tomato-garlic sauce, accompanied by a tasty bowl of whole beans sprinkled with white cheese. The two desserts we sampled are enough to convince me that Fierros could profitably operate his own sweet shop. I'm willing to go out on a limb and declare La Pila's flan the best I've ever tasted. It's riveting--rich and creamy to a point I didn't think possible. And the chocolate chimichangas are exquisite--two tiny, bite-size, fried critters, sprinkled with powdered sugar and stuffed with numbingly rich chocolate. At $1.25 a pair, I could easily see ordering five bucks worth of them. Despite the great food, La Pila is not yet a great restaurant. There's an air of discombobulation and disorganization. Don't stare too long at the menu--the kitchen is apt to be out of many items. (Along with the oysters, for example, I'm still waiting to try the sweet tamales stuffed with pineapple and raisins, with fresh cream and cinnamon.) Promised side dishes don't show up. Corn tortillas become flour tortillas. One evening the credit-card unit broke down, and a mortified server had to ask us to come up with cash. Still, along with Such Is Life, La Pila serves some of the most entertaining Mexican meals in the Valley. But if you're planning to dine here, give the place a late-afternoon call just to make sure the kitchen is operating at full throttle. Carlos O'Brien's, 1133 East Northern, Phoenix, 274-5881. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight. Unlike La Pila, Carlos O'Brien's makes no gastronomic demands on its customers. The folks who regularly pack this popular place, even on scorchingly hot midweek summer nights, aren't interested in caramelized walnuts, duck confit or chicken mole. They're here for mountainous servings of gringo fare served at Third World prices. Many words will spring to mind when you get up to leave, but "hungry" and "broke" aren't going to be among them. Of course, it's unfair to measure Carlos O'Brien's with La Pila's yardstick. The only apt comparison for an enchilada-and-taco combination plate is another enchilada-and-taco combo plate. But even by this more generous standard, Carlos O'Brien's still didn't strike me as anything special. Part of the place's mass allure has to derive from the all-American setting. This is no dark, smoky, ethnic joint, the kind that encourages visions of foreigners stirring up who knows what in big, black pots back in the kitchen. Spiffy and tidy, Carlos O'Brien's is big, airy and comfortable, in a suburban sort of way. The unthreatening appearance perfectly matches the take-no-chances fare. You could even bring fussy Aunt Edith from Milwaukee here with perfect confidence. A basket of chips with a thin, forgettable pico de gallo might squelch a few predinner hunger pangs, but it has little else going for it. Anyway, we thought, why munch on free chips when we can order nachos for $4.75? That kind of logic brought us just what we deserved, an enormous pile of undistinguished chips drenched in tasteless cheese, studded with a few flecks of the world's mildest chile. Maybe the main dishes will be a bit more interesting, we hoped. After all, the limited conceptual sweep of tacos, tamales, enchiladas, chimichangas and chiles rellenos doesn't preclude their skillful and tasty execution. Nope. While dinner here will certainly stave off midnight raids on the refrigerator, it doesn't supply much immediate gratification. I adore green corn tamales, but the model here was a huge (in both senses of the word) disappointment. It was bone-dry, giving me the impression it had been sitting around the kitchen way too long. The corn and chile scents were just about undetectable. Several problems surfaced with the combo beef and chicken fajitas, the most expensive dish on the menu at $9.25. The meat was nicely charred, but too much of it was gristly. The platter came with sour cream and guacamole, but no cheese, tomatoes or onions to sprinkle onto the tortilla. And, least forgivable, the guacamole had spoiled. Almost everything else seemed strictly routine, except for the oversize portions. The chile relleno is more eggy than cheesy, and milder than a spring morning. You couldn't pick the cheese enchilada out of a police lineup--it had no distinguishing characteristics. And the beef taco suffered from the same gristly imperfections that marred the fajitas. Only the massive chicken chimichanga, which seemed big enough to furnish, had some oomph, courtesy of a crisp crust, thick hunks of fowl and a low-key green sauce. Our outgoing server talked up dessert, but thick chocolate cheesecake can't really shine after such a heavy meal, no matter how good. The flan seemed all texture and no flavor. Only the puffy sopaipilla was worth the calories. Coated with cinnamon and sugar, it had a hot, right-from-the-stove crunch. Carlos O'Brien's fare is reasonably safe, eminently sane and unerringly dull. Apparently, that's the recipe for success.