Second Helpings

Neighborhood Update: Restaurant trends may come and go, but there'll always be room for two kinds of places: a reliable neighborhood Chinese restaurant that dishes out all the old favorites, and a dependable, budget-friendly neighborhood joint that dishes out good food and 100 cents of value for your dollar.

I've praised both China Village and Centro Cafe & Bakery before. But these spots deserve the ink. That's because they're good enough to become your neighborhood Chinese and budget-restaurant hangouts, even if you don't live in the neighborhood.

China Village won't dazzle you with tankfuls of still-swimming seafood, like C-Fu Gourmet, or expert noodle dishes, like Gourmet House of Hong Kong, or exotic clay-pot cooking, like Big Wong. But nobody does basic Chinese-restaurant fare any better. This is the kind of food that Mom used to take out.

Take the hot-and-sour soup, hands down the best I've had in the Valley. This steaming, spicy, vinegary broth will clear your sinuses as if they've been vacuumed. For a few breathtaking moments after you've spooned up the last drop, your sense of smell will be as acute as your dog's.

Other staples also hit the target. Anything prepared yui-shan style--heavily seasoned with ginger, garlic and chiles--sings with flavor. Lemon chicken, twice-cooked pork, almond duck, cashew nut shrimp, tangerine beef, chow mein and bean curd with oyster sauce--no matter what section of the menu you order from, you'll find several winners.

China Village is at 12005 North 32nd Street (phone: 953-1961), in the shopping center at the southeast corner of 32nd Street and Cactus. There's a sister restaurant at 2710 East Indian School, as well.

Centro Cafe & Bakery opened about a year ago in an unpromising storefront in a grungy strip mall at 2831 North 24th Street, just south of Thomas (phone: 224-9235). It's still there, but now the place has a bit of a swagger. The servers wear tee shirts embossed with the restaurant's name, and woe betide you if you show up at noon without a reservation.

Why are people flocking here? That's easy: great food and great prices. Sandwiches are magnificent, especially when you opt for them in the homemade pita bread. My favorite's the chicken-and-artichoke model, festooned with sun-dried tomato and melted cheese. The one fashioned from turkey breast, broccoli and Cheddar isn't far behind.

Appetizers also show flair. The calamari, freshened with herbs and lemon, is superb. And how many budget-priced places offer a starter like rock shrimp croquettes?

With the exception of three seafood plates, the menu tops out at $7.95. That includes chicken scarpara, grilled chicken breast teamed with sausage in a lemon wine sauce; farfalle Capri, fresh snapper and rock shrimp in a white wine mushroom cream sauce with a three-cheese crust; and manicotti Florentine, pasta tubes stuffed with spinach, seasoned with dill and draped with an Alfredo sauce.

Need more encouragement? You can BYOB--there's a dollar corkage fee.
--Howard Seftel

Suggestions? Write me at New Times, P.O. Box 2510, Phoenix,


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