Carlsbad Tavern, 3309 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 970-8164. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Dinner, Sunday, 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.
People crave variety in all sorts of ways. Some of us wait breathlessly for car manufacturers to introduce their new models; some of us anticipate the couturiers' upcoming fall lines; and some of us are eager to check out the latest arrivals at the singles bars.
I don't care about cars; I'll keep my clunker until it dies of old age. Fashion? If my bell-bottoms fit, why shouldn't I wear them? A new spouse? Too much effort. It took too many years to train the current officeholder to appreciate my limited virtues.
But food, that's different. I have the same sort of relationship with food that Imelda Marcos has with shoes: So much to jump into, so little time.
No cuisine more quickly arouses my lust for variety than Mexican food. Yes, I can appreciate our Sonoran staples: tacos, enchiladas, burros. But on a daily basis, it's hard to sustain a continued enthusiasm for them.
So I'm always on the lookout for off-the-beaten-combo-plate Mexican dishes to revive my interest. I'm happy to report I've found two places that should perk up even severely jaded south-of-the-border palates. The New Mexican-style Mexican fare at Carlsbad Tavern turns dinner into a genuine fiesta. At funky Restaurant Sinaloa, meanwhile, both the Mexican setting and the seafood make it hard to believe you're in Mesa.
I'll say it straight out: Carlsbad Tavern has some of the best Mexican food in town, at prices that won't cause a household currency crisis. Run by a team of experienced restaurateurs who've evidently thought through all the angles, this new place is going to be packed with happy customers.
They may have to wait for a table, though. The L-shaped room is not very large. It's got the usual Southwestern colors, turquoise and copper; the usual Southwestern knickknacks, like strings of chiles and horseshoes, hanging on the wall; and the usual loud ay-yay-yay music blaring through the speakers. If you sit at one of the high-back booths at the rear, you can entertain yourself looking at the campy Mexican B-movie posters.
But, frankly, the food here is so entertaining that you'll probably be oblivious to the surroundings.
Start off with a margarita. The proprietors know that tequila is the trendy spirit of the moment, so they've stocked their bar with a good selection of blancos, reposados and anejos. More important, they know how to put together a drink. Try an on-the-rocks margarita made with Porfidio anejo. At $7, it costs almost as much as some of the entrees. But it gets the evening off to a rousing start.
Unfortunately, you also have to reach for your wallet if you want to munch chips with your drink. At Scottsdale Mexican restaurants, this is a distressing, although increasingly common, trend. For $2.25, you get fresh chips, along with two salsas, a mild pico de gallo and a tart tomatillo.
Appetizers give a clear indication that the kitchen takes its job seriously. I'm a little dubious about the New Mexican origins of one evening's starter special, Santa Fe potato pancakes. But what they lack in authenticity, they make up in taste. You get three plump, skillet-sizzling beauties, topped with sour cream and apple chutney.
Santa Fe duck ravioli? It's another regional stretch, but who cares? Chipotle-laced pasta is stuffed with generous amounts of pungent, heavily smoked duck, then deep-fried and coated with a Brie cream sauce. If your taste buds have been napping, this luscious dish is guaranteed to wake them up. Shrimp lovers will appreciate the six crustaceans marinated in tequila and lime, which are then grilled and glazed with an orange-cilantro pesto sauce. They taste as good as the menu description sounds.
Many entrees come with a dinner salad and a basket of green chile corn bread. Both are adequate. But do yourself a favor and try to hold off. The main dishes here are worth being hungry for.
Chief among them is the carne adovada, juicy pork simmered in a tantalizing, dark-red chile sauce. Like the best New Mexican versions of this dish, Carlsbad Tavern's model has a fiery, delayed-reaction bite. The dish comes with another New Mexican staple, sopaipillas. Do what the natives do--pour on some honey to soften the chile impact. Excellent rice and cheese-draped whole beans complete the platter. You can't get much more value for $7.95 in this town.
Lamb pierna is equally alluring: lots of tender, grilled meat on the bone, moistened in one of the best sauces I've put through my lips in quite a while. Green chile mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables furnish worthy accompaniments.
Artesia chicken features rolled chicken breast, stuffed with roasted pepper, sun-dried tomato, spinach and feta cheese, sliced and fanned across the plate. It's deftly paired with a kicky pico de gallo and green chile risotto.
The less complicated fare is also boldly flavored. The chile rellenos are irresistible; two New Mexico green chiles filled with roast pork and jalapeno jack cheese. Blue corn enchiladas are just as tempting, crammed with chicken, cheese and whole shrimp, not those microscopically teeny bay shrimp or shrimp shards that afflict inferior enchiladas. And the beef tamales also shine, burnished by hard-hitting green and red chile sauces.
Desserts are simple. Look for Ben & Jerry's ice cream, or the house-made flan--intriguingly sweetened with a prickly pear syrup.
Carlsbad Tavern works on several levels. It's a fine watering hole with interesting appetizer munchies. The food is good enough for aficionados, but it shouldn't frighten your out-of-town guests. You can get late-night eats, and the price is certainly right. If you keep track of the Valley's best Mexican restaurants, add this one to your list.
Restaurant Sinaloa, 45 West Broadway, Mesa, 464-0024. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
From the outside, Restaurant Sinaloa looks like the kind of place that many folks would instinctively drive past. Set in a somewhat forlorn section of Mesa, next to a liquor store/deli, it presents a very modest face to the world.
Inside, the scene may throw some people off, too. Restaurant Sinaloa makes no concessions to gringo aesthetic sensibilities. (Sinaloa, incidentally, is a coastal state, south of Sonora, Mexico.) You will stand out a bit if Spanish isn't your first language. On both our visits, we were the only native English speakers here. But the sweet servers put the linguistically challenged at ease. It also helps to have a taste for south-of-the-border music, which is played nonstop at heavy-metal decibel levels from a CD jukebox. And if you're concerned about secondhand smoke, you should know that Restaurant Sinaloa's clientele appears to be divided between those who are smoking and those who are just about to light up. (This will change, however, when Mesa's new nonsmoking ordinance goes into effect in a few weeks.)
Restaurant Sinaloa makes no concessions to gringo culinary sensibilities, either. If you want your ethnic food straight-up with no frills, the way it's served in a neighborhood place in the home country, this place should suit you perfectly.
Check out the Mexican beers, which you swig right out of the bottle. (Why should the kitchen wash glasses?) Fresh chips and a cold Bohemia are two of life's inexpensive little pleasures.
The kitchen concentrates on seafood. Ocean fare, we all know, isn't cheap. But Restaurant Sinaloa isn't spending a fortune on rent, plants or equipment, so it can keep prices down. Just about everything on the menu goes for under ten bucks.
Start off with a seafood cocktail: shrimp or octopus. Better yet, make it a camarones-pulpo combination. You get a big glass crammed full of refreshing aquatic life. The tomato broth it sits in is not as bold as I've had elsewhere--there's no chile bite or onion zip. A squeeze of lime helps.
If you're a bit more adventurous, try the starter of camarones ahogados--"stewed" shrimp. And stewed they are: raw, butterflied crustaceans in a pool of mouth-puckering lime juice, perked up with cucumber, onion and tomato. It's not terribly filling, but it is highly diverting.
Mexican seafood veterans should consider making camarones a la Diabla their entree. It's devilish, all right, and definitely not for the faint of tongue. You get seven meaty, in-the-shell shrimp in a fiery tomato sauce that doesn't know when to quit. Tasty rice, sliced fried potatoes, a bit of iceberg lettuce with ranch dressing and slices of orange and lime take up the rest of the plate.
Pescado a la Veracruzana is another dish experienced diners will take to. The pescado is tilapia, an inexpensive, farm-raised, white-fleshed fish, with a considerable number of bones. It's covered with onions, green peppers and olives (with the pits still in them). A word of caution for the squeamish: While you're looking at the fish, it's looking back at you--it comes with the head on.
If that's more authenticity than you can handle, have a filleted pescado al ajo, a breaded and fried boneless slab seasoned with garlic.
What I'd come back for, however, is the Seven Seas stew: snow crab, clams, scallops, shrimp, octopus and hunks of fish, in a mild tomato broth stocked with carrots and celery, all swimming in a huge metal bowl.
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A few landlubber dishes are available, although I can't imagine why anyone would make a special trip here for them. Steak picado features shredded beef, chile and onion in a mildly flavorful sauce. The chile verde is routinely agreeable.
Restaurant Sinaloa isn't a transformative culinary experience. But if you like affordable Mexican seafood fare in a genuine south-of-the-border setting, it is an undeniably pleasant experience.
a la Diabla
a la Veracruzana
Seven Seas stew 9.95