Budget Deficit: How was your 1996? Did you buy Suns season tickets, hoping to scalp them at a profit? Were you a big-time contributor to the Dole campaign, looking to land an ambassador job? Did you predict a stock-market crash and sell short?
Unless your name is Symington, if you're starting off the year in the hole, you probably won't be dining at the Valley's swankier restaurants. But the financially challenged can still eat reasonably well outside the home at these wallet-friendly places:
* Islands, 12811 North Tatum (and other Valley locations): Burgers and fries may not sound terribly elegant, but this California chain delivers outstanding versions of each. The spuds are cut fresh each day, and the burgers are fat and juicy.
* Oregano's, 3622 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale: A lively, buzzing place, with lively, buzzing Italian goodies. Wonderful Chicago-style pizzas, as well as superb lasagna and baked hoagies crammed with all the fixings.
* Seafood Central, 6990 East Shea, Scottsdale: Seafood is never cheap, certainly not in the desert. But at this no-frills spot, the price is right. Most grilled aquatic fare is less than 10 bucks, and a dozen fresh oysters go for an eye-rubbing $1.99.
* Lalibela, 8946 North 19th Avenue: Ethiopian fare, served Ethiopian style. That means using your hands to eat off a communal plate. The food is highly seasoned, but not spicy-hot. The vegetarian dishes are particularly good, like the collard greens and gomen, a fragrant blend of cabbage, potatoes and carrots.
* Flying Crane, 730 East Brown, Mesa: Light, healthful Asian fare prepared fresh and with flair. Try stir-fried sole with snow peas and water chestnuts, or Cantonese tomato velvet--chicken, tomato and scallions in a spicy black bean sauce.
* Hearty Hen Cafe, 10830 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale: This homey place looks a bit like Granny's, if Granny had a glassed-in brick rotisserie. Excellent chicken, especially the chicken pot pie. Homemade desserts are scrumptious, from the fruit cobblers to pecan pie.
* Rosa's Mexican Grill, 328 East University, Mesa: Some of the best tacos in town. The beef, chicken and pork are marinated in fruit juices, and baked long and slowly. The fish taco, gilded with honey and herbs, is outstanding. The homemade salsas also set Rosa's apart.
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* Saigon Healthy Cuisine, 820 South Mill, Tempe: Zesty Vietnamese fare, most of it so tasty you won't even realize it's good for you. Combinations of chicken, pork, shrimp and vegetables, served over rice noodles or rice. Wash down your meal with the homemade lemonade.
Restaurant-savvy readers may note one glaring omission from this list: Mike's Golden Crust. Over the past few years, it's been one of the most reliable cheap restaurants in town. But Mike's was sold during the summer, and I've been hearing nothing but complaints from longtime patrons since the new owners took over. Now the restaurant's answering machine is telling callers that, "Due to circumstances beyond our control," Mike's Golden Crust is temporarily closed. Stay tuned.
Suggestions? Write me at New Times, P.O. Box 2510, Phoenix,