La Hacienda, Scottsdale Princess resort, 7575 East Princess Drive, Scottsdale, 585-4848. Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 6 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m.
The line between "high" and "low" art keeps moving. Once upon a time, Shakespeare and opera were the staples of mass entertainment. Then, in the 19th century, they became associated with elite culture. Now, the pendulum is shifting again. While many college English departments no longer require students to read the Bard (he's an irrelevant, dead, white, European male), movie executives with their fingers on the pulse of popular culture find he appeals to today's audiences: Othello, Looking for Richard, William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet have all recently played the multiplexes, alongside the latest Jim Carrey and Tom Cruise epics. The three tenors, meanwhile, outsell Coolio and outdraw Garth Brooks.
The distinction between "high" gastronomy and "low," everyday fare isn't as clear as it once was, either. After all, fresh, high-quality ingredients can be the mark of a fancy meal or a simple, home-cooked midweek dinner. Prepared by the right hands, even homespun dishes like meat loaf or spaghetti and meatballs acquire character and charm.
When it comes to food, labels don't matter. I have the same sentiments about food that Duke Ellington had about music. A composer of symphonies, ballet scores, jazz and pop tunes, Ellington was asked what kind of music he liked best. He thought for a moment. "Good music," he replied.
That point was driven home to me after recent visits to La Hacienda and La Pinata. La Hacienda offers sophisticated Mexican regional specialties in upscale surroundings. La Pinata is a neighborhood spot serving the usual Sonoran suspects. But despite their differences, it's what they have in common that's most pertinent: good food.
One of the featured restaurants at the swanky Scottsdale Princess resort, La Hacienda seems to go through chefs the same way Imelda Marcos goes through shoes. The last chef's stint didn't last as long as the Jackson-Presley marriage. The latest hire is Lenard Rubin, whom foodies may recall once led the kitchens at 8700 and Windows on the Green.
Actually, it doesn't matter much which chef is in charge. The executives overseeing this resort's restaurants always seem to keep the operation purring.
And purring is what I feel like doing after an evening here. The sprawling place recalls the Mexico of the Spanish colonial grandee: low, wood-beamed ceilings, multiple fireplaces, a flagstone floor, roving mariachis and thick, wood-framed windows looking out on spotlighted palms and cactuses outside.
As you might expect, La Hacienda's fare is not the kind you'll find in local taco parlors or Mexican villages. It's pricey, elegant and astonishingly tasty.
At first glance, there's nothing very elegant about the chips, salsa and bean dip. (In fact, the salsa is completely ordinary.) But the beans are a knockout, bold with cumin and epazote, a pungent herb essential in Mexican cooking.
The appetizers are breathtaking, some of the best in town. The ancho chile, stuffed with roasted chicken, dried fruit, pistachios and walnuts, comes moistened with a trio of spoon-licking sauces. It's close to sublime. So is the mushroom crepe, enlivened with huitlacoche, a fungus of almost trufflelike intensity, all doused in a hearty sherry sauce. Where else in town can you encounter a nibble like cabrito mixote, braised goat meat mixed with peppers and veggies wrapped in a banana leaf? And if you're just getting over a winter cold, as I was, the spicy chicken-tortilla soup, flavored with epazote, white cheese and pasilla chile, will open your sinus passages with a flourish.
For some reason, however, La Hacienda follows up the wonderful appetizer course with a basket of banal cheese rolls and right-out-of-the-plastic-bag flour tortillas. It's an unworthy touch. Someone should be making the tortillas from scratch.
Happily, the main dishes make it easy to push the basket aside. The menu is heavy with seafood, one of the glories of Mexican cuisine, and the kitchen does the ocean fare justice. Mexican Gulf tuna is gorgeous: thick, meaty slices of lightly seared fish, crusted with crispy potatoes and paired with corn pudding and a colorful mix of asparagus with red and yellow peppers. This platter is as enjoyable to look at as it is to eat.
Baby red snapper is one of three entrees sporting a "good health" emblem. But it's too good to leave to the counters of calories and fat grams. A filleted slab is coated with a sharp Veracruzana sauce, fragrant with olives and capers. Cracked wheat and a squash-stuffed tomato make compelling accompaniments.
The Gulf shrimp is remarkable. You get five giant U-10s--that means no more than 10 to a pound--marinated in lots of lemon, then grilled. If you've forgotten why shrimp is a delicacy, these beauties will refresh your memory. Sides of sweetened butternut squash and garlic-and-pepper-draped spinach are good enough to divert your attention from the crustaceans.
Meat lovers aren't neglected. The mixed grill provides a taste of three menu items. Along with the shrimp, you get a butter-soft hunk of beef tenderloin lined with Mexican cheese and roast chicken in a ravishing mole. And there's always La Hacienda's nightly special and signature dish: cochinillo asado, roast suckling pig, wheeled up to the table and carved to order. It's definitely not for the burro-and-refried-beans crowd. Come here early if you want it; the kitchen occasionally runs out.
Desserts are as stimulating as the rest of the meal. I'm especially fond of the creme anglaise-filled crepes, burnished with a scoop of cajeta ice cream (made from caramelized milk) and poached pears. And the pumpkin-chocolate cheesecake is flat-out fabulous--two rich, creamy layers separated by a wedge of hard chocolate, drizzled with caramel sauce.
La Hacienda's dazzling Mexican fare is among the Valley's very best. If you and your bank account are ready to move beyond tacos, enchiladas and chimichangas, your next move should be here.
La Pinata, 3330 North 19th Avenue, Phoenix, 279-1763. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
If you and your bank account are not ready to move beyond tacos, enchiladas and chimichangas, maybe your next move should be to La Pinata.
It's a neighborhood spot that's been serving the neighbors for a generation. It won't take too many visits to figure out the reason for its longevity: The Sonoran fare is cheap and tasty.
The place looks like most other neighborhood Mexican restaurants in town. Pinatas and Day of the Dead figures hang above the doorway. The nonsmoking room is just about bare of decoration, while the smoking area is brightened with pottery and artwork. Mexican tunes spill out of the music system and the waitresses wear peasant blouses.
There may be a few pleasures in life more satisfying than sitting down to a potent margarita and a plateful of nachos, but most of them aren't nearly this affordable. La Pinata's models prove you don't have to be rich to enjoy the good life. The guacamole on the nachos is particularly noteworthy, fresh and chunky. The chicken taquitos also make a first-class nibble. They're crunchy fried tacos, teamed with three dipping sauces: guacamole, a jalapeno-studded cream-cheese sauce and a full-blooded pico de gallo armed with plenty of chile energy. Of course, the budget-conscious can always fill up on the basket of warm, crunchy chips.
Albóndigas soup is another effective way to slide into dinner. It tastes like someone armed with kitchen tools other than a can opener has been stirring a pot all afternoon. The beefy broth is thickly stocked with veggies--carrots, squash, cabbage, green beans--and several meatballs.
The main dishes prove that familiarity doesn't have to breed contempt. The green chile burro is darned near perfect, a two-hander filled with lots of tender beef smothered in a splendid green chile sauce.
Something as ordinary as a chicken taco has a very extraordinary flair. Squeeze some lime on the moist, grilled poultry, cheese, lettuce and tomato on the soft corn tortilla and you'll see what I mean.
La Pinata offers more elaborate fare, almost all of it for $8.95 or less. I'm partial to the Tamalito de Mi Tia Carlotta, two tamales, one chicken, the other green corn, adorned with a snappy chile sauce. Gringos take note: This kitchen is not afraid to gently heat up the roof of your mouth.
It's also not afraid to fill up your plate. The Yucatan features a huge machaca-beef chimichanga, drenched with a thick spinach-cheese sauce. About the only thing you can safely do after polishing this off is lie down.
Shrimp fajitas are another tasty option. There's no sizzling skillet, but you do get six meaty, grilled crustaceans, arranged between colorful orange slices and topped with fried onions and peppers. The rice, beans and other fajita fixings provide exemplary accompaniments.
Not everything soars. The plump seafood enchiladas suffer from too much of the dreaded "krab." And the chile relleno is a little breadier and eggier than I prefer, although I realize this is strictly a matter of personal preference.
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It's unlikely anyone will be panting with hunger at dessert time. But if you are, check out the cielito lindo, a puffy sopaipilla stuffed with hot, sweetened apples and sprayed with whipped cream.
La Pinata serves the same Mexican dishes you can get at hundreds of other Mexican places in town. It just does them better than most.
Grilled Gulf shrimp
Green chile burro