Scrimp Cocktail

China Chili, 3501 North Central, Phoenix, 266-4463. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m.

Saint Nick is long gone. The tree is down. The presents are put away. The wreaths and lights have been stowed in the garage until next year. The champagne has been drunk. The bowl games have ended.

By the first week of January, almost every sign of the festive holiday season is over. But soon folks all across the Valley will remember just how festive the holiday season was. The reminder will come in envelopes marked American Express, Visa and MasterCard.

In an ideal world, I'd be able to maintain a five-figure balance in my bank account. After a bumpy December, the good news is, I've hit the target. The bad news is that two of the digits are to the right of the decimal point.

So I've been combing the Valley, looking for budget-priced restaurants that won't upset either my financial situation or my digestion.

Serendipitously, I stumbled into a terrific Chinese spot near downtown called China Chili.

From the outside, China Chili looks like the kind of place it takes some courage to enter. There's nothing welcoming about the boxy, featureless exterior. If you were driving past on Central, you might not even think the restaurant was open.

Inside, however, it's another story. The place is surprisingly spiffy: white linen tablecloths and green cloth napkins; a lovely aquarium stocked with exotic, colorful fish; framed pictures of Asian scenes; and live plants rooting in vases.

The most notable part of China Chili is the kitchen. This is the domain of a very talented chef who woks up some of the best Chinese dishes this side of C-Fu Gourmet and Big Wong.

He's been in business for nine months, lured here from San Francisco by Valley relatives who complained about the mediocrity of our local Chinese restaurants. They probably aren't complaining now. And neither will anyone else who appreciates low-cost, high-quality fare.

Everything here almost smacks you in the face with its freshness and flavor. Take the hot and sour soup, which can help take the sting out of a cool Valley winter evening. This broth, thickly stocked with bits of pork, shrimp and veggies, sports a sharp, vinegary kick that will clear out even the stuffiest nasal passages and sinus cavities. There's also a lovely seafood blossom soup, an egg-drop chicken broth subtly tinged with a few shrimp, scallops and a teaspoon of real crab.

If you want to nibble on appetizers, the homemade pot stickers are a winning choice. You get four plump, doughy critters, filled with ground pork and cabbage, pan-fried to perfection. Adventurers can take advantage of the chef's creativity by opting for the tofu rolls: tofu flecked with smoked ham, wrapped in seaweed, then fried and sliced.

The main dishes may compel you to poke your head out the front door to check if you've magically been transported to Grant Street in San Francisco.

Skeptics are urged to order the chow fun, a rice-noodle dish that will make you understand why Marco Polo raced back to Italy with news of pasta. The menu calls the tangy lemon chicken a "must try," and I agree with that assessment. Chunks of chicken breast are deep-fried in a light, puffy batter, and moistened in a tart-sweet citrus sauce. It all sits on a bed of greenery, ringed by sliced tomatoes, and it's darned near irresistible. Yu shiang chicken also ranges over a full octave of flavor notes, thanks to lots of ginger and a spicy hot garlic sauce.

Pork with imperial sauce offers a tantalizing medley of aromas. The chef batters and fries pork cubes, then adorns them with a complex, fragrant sauce scented with Worcestershire and soy sauces and a heavy dose of five-spice seasoning. Shrimp is just as well-fashioned. Stir-fried prawns in a first-rate lobster sauce benefit from a lusty coating of black beans, garlic and onion.

The veggie dishes are particularly outstanding. Szechuan-style string beans are first flash-fried, then braised with pork and preserved turnip in a mesmerizing chili-garlic sauce. The fabulous spicy garlic eggplant, meanwhile, may be the single best dish here. It starts with the raw materials--the chef uses tasty, tender Japanese eggplant, not the less-flavorful supermarket variety. Instead of mashing the eggplant into a flavorless pulp, he cuts it into chopstick-friendly pieces. Then, they're sauteed with garlic and minced pork, and gilded with a dazzling hot chili paste. Mom won't need to tell you to eat these vegetables.

Taper off with an off-the-menu dessert treat, a refreshing mango pudding teamed with fresh blueberries.

Except for a few seafood dishes, almost everything on the menu comes in at $8 or less. (One odd touch: Rice costs 80 cents a bowl.) On the taste-to-price scale, China Chili is one of the best values in town.

Dos Gringos, 4209 North Craftsman, Scottsdale, 423-3800. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.

"A little bit of Rocky Point, Mex. north of the border," reads the menu at Dos Gringos. And the menu is pretty much right.

The proprietors must be paying the rent in pesos. How else can they operate in the middle of art-walk Scottsdale with menu prices that range from $1.50 to $5.95?

Dos Gringos keeps costs down by skimping on interior design. Actually, except for a few barstools, there's almost no interior at all. Most of the seating is outdoors, at long, wooden tables. Along one wall, a giant Orwellian big-screen television is tuned to Wheel of Fortune, although I half-expected to see Big Brother instead of Pat Sajak. The blues spill out of the music system, while heaters keep you warm.

The menu is small and simple, and the food is cheap and fresh-tasting. There may not be too much grilled fish in the fish taco, but what's there is quite serviceable. (How much fish do you expect for a buck and a half?) The chicken taco features grilled cubed white meat. Best, though, is the beef. Splurge for an extra dollar and upgrade the beef taco into a beef fajita taco. You'll get a decent portion of tender steak wrapped in a soft flour tortilla, heaped with onions and peppers sauteed with heat-packing chipotle pepper, as well as sour cream and salsa. Sit back with a couple of these babies and the house margarita, a potent drink which makes up in intensity what it lacks in refinement. Then buy a vowel and watch the tourists stroll by.

The chicken torta is worth clucking over. The kitchen uses thick pita bread, and covers it with poultry and a snappy mango-chile salsa. Mexican pizza is also first-rate, a double layer of tortillas topped with chipotle pepper puree, grilled onions, peppers, chicken, cheese and garlicky black bean hummus. At $5.95, it's the most expensive item here, but you won't feel shortchanged. In contrast, the cheese quesadilla--tortilla with melted cheese--is a snooze.

Dos Gringos' most serious problem: the chips. They're store-bought awful, not fit to dunk into the chunky pico de gallo or the chile con queso.

During one visit, I dawdled over a margarita and watched one of the staff preparing a huge vat of black bean hummus. When he finished, the boss came over for a taste. "It's no good," he said, shaking his head. "Throw it out." I don't know if that's standard culinary operating procedure in Rocky Point. But it sure makes spending what's left of your cash at Dos Gringos a lot more reassuring.

China Chili:
Hot and sour soup
Spicy garlic eggplant
Tangy lemon chicken

Dos Gringos:
Beef fajita



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