Spice Grills

Hatch Valley Chile Co., 13637 North Tatum, Phoenix, 953-2380. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

In these sophisticated times, going out for ethnic fare isn't quite as simple as it used to be. Once you've chosen the type of cuisine, you still have other decisions to make.

Looking for Chinese food? Szechuan, Hunan or Cantonese?
Checking out Italian restaurants? You'll have to decide whether you want Tuscan, Sicilian or fruitti di mare.

Mexican food is just as regionalized, and the Valley is home to several worthy representatives. At Such Is Life, for instance, you can inhale the scents of the Yucatan. La Parrilla Suiza offers specialties from the Mexico City region. The aquatic fare at San Carlos Bay reminds us that Mexico has thousands of miles of coastline, and Mexican cooks who know how to make use of it.

Our next-door neighbor, New Mexico, has a unique take on south-of-the-border cooking. Its most salient feature: ferocious chile heat. New Mexican dishes can make even chile-hardened veterans look like they've just swallowed a live hand grenade, with nostrils flaring and steam pouring out of their mouth and ears. My first encounter with New Mexican food left my entire face so numb I thought it had been injected with Novocain.

The best source of New Mexican heat is the chile from the area around Hatch, in the southern part of the state. These extraordinary peppers do for Hatch what the Pinot Noir grape does for Burgundy: inspire connoisseurs from all over the world.

The Valley's New Mexican-restaurant scene has picked up in recent years. (Among the options are Los Dos Molinos, Carlsbad Tavern, Richardson's and New Mexico Cafe.) It's easy to understand why: At its best, New Mexican cuisine is exhilarating, a fascinating, combustible combination of fire and flavor.

The latest entry is the Hatch Valley Chile Co. It seems to have caught on--plenty of folks are coming even on steamy, midweek summer nights. They're coming to a kitchen that's capable of hitting some really high notes, but sometimes shrinks from trying to reach them.

The place has good looks going for it, in a spare, minimalist sort of way, that keep you from noticing it's set in a busy shopping strip. The walls are mostly bare, except for some ristras (strings of dried red chiles) and a couple of paintings reminiscent of native rock art. The big porthole window is a nice touch. So are the comfortable carved-wood chairs and heavy wooden tables.

Appetizers are a waste of time, money and belly room. What are deep-fried cheese sticks doing on this menu? The nachos are nothing special, and the quesadilla is equally unremarkable. You're better off munching for free on the first-rate chips, fresh and crunchy, teamed with a delightful trio of salsas: a jalapeno-flecked sour cream dip, a nippy red-chile sauce and a warm green-chile salsa whose fires are best doused by an icy-cold brew.

If you do insist on spending money before your main dish comes, go for the off-the-menu posole, one of the great glories of New Mexican cooking. It's practically a meal in a bowl, an aromatic, rustic stew fashioned from hominy, pork and red chile. (Why don't more of the Valley's restaurants feature it?) The server told me the kitchen makes a big pot every day--and when it's empty, that's it until tomorrow.

Order right, and you'll swear Hatch Valley Chile Co. belongs in the New Mexican-food big leagues. The gorditas are a revelation, three homemade cornmeal pouches overstuffed with wonderful fillings. The ground-beef model is especially outstanding, coarsely textured and zestily seasoned. The shredded beef and chicken, meanwhile, are uncommonly juicy and fragrant.

The red-chile con carne is another winner, made with lots of tender pork bathed in rich, spicy red sauce that revealed layers and layers of complex chile flavors.

Another good bet is the hefty Rio Grande combination platter, which provides five different tastes to sample. Best of them is the chile con carne, a hearty, stewlike mix of beef and green chile that's a New Mexican staple. The cheesy chile relleno packs a real chile wallop. The beef tamale, punched up with red chile, will hold your interest, while the taco benefits from the same ground beef that makes the ground-beef gordita so appealing. In comparison, the enchilada simply doesn't measure up.

The burrito plate is a weighty affair, two huge burritos filled with shredded beef, chicken or beans. What interest they have comes principally from which of the three sauces you choose to top them with. There's a Las Cruces green, a pallid condiment that has all the flames you'd find in a jar of baby food. The exotic Deming red, however, is deep, dark and flavorful, with enough heat to keep your sinus passages clear. The Hatch green is advertised as the "ultimate" in chile heat. It's hot, all right--you can expect your lips to tingle for about an hour after you eat--but it doesn't approach the incendiary levels you find in New Mexico.

This reluctance to go all-out New Mexican characterizes some of the less interesting fare. I imagine the kitchen wants to make sure that the more skittish neighborhood diners will find something their palates can handle. That's certainly the case with the fajitas, hardly a New Mexican dish. They're perfectly good, but there's nothing remotely distinctive about them. No doubt some risk-averse folks will be happy to order the Akela chicken breast, topped with cheese and mild green chile strips. It's okay, but hardly a memorable testament to New Mexican cuisine. The same is true for the three steak entrees, each a 10-ounce rib eye topped with a different sauce, all accompanied by rice and beans.

Finish up with sopaipillas, puffy, steaming pillows of fried dough that natives fill with honey, to help extinguish the flames from the chile heat. The sopaipillas here are just right, and they also come gratis.

My advice: Stick with fare that doesn't stray from Hatch Valley Chile Co.'s New Mexican roots. Then open up and say, "Down the Hatch."

La Familia Mexican Restaurant, 3145 West Indian School, Phoenix, 265-2912. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Arizona, of course, has its own style of Mexican food. At its worst, Az-Mex dishes are lard-loaded, cheese-glopped, sauce-drenched, look-alike snoozers that often inspire many knowledgeable diners to make a run from the border.

But at its best, when the ingredients are fresh, the grease held down and the kitchen skilled, our south-of-the-border desert fare gives notice that Sonoran cooking can go beyond the bland.

At La Familia, a long-running west-side enterprise that changed ownership a few years ago, the proprietors are adept at revealing the oft-buried charms of all the usual Az-Mex suspects.

The first visible sign of that commitment is the room itself. Although the restaurant does business in a down-at-the-heels west-side shopping strip, it's been prettily refurbished. The anteroom is filled with knickknacks--an old coffee mill, a treadle sewing machine, a Coke chest--while the dining area is filled with familiar Mexican-decor touches, like hanging serapes, bullfight posters and embroidered hats.

It's a good sign when restaurant owners throw money into spiffing up a place. It leads you reasonably to expect them to think about taking care of business in the kitchen, too.

La Familia does. You get your first inkling from the chips, which are crispy fresh and teamed with a zippy salsa. If you prefer to pay for a pre-entree nibble, head straight for the cheese crisp. Yes, a cheese crisp sounds just like a typically boring Sonoran munch. After all, what can you expect from a cheese-draped flour tortilla? Except La Familia's version is marvelous: a crispy tortilla spread out over a metal pizza pan, coated with melted cheese and outstanding chunky guacamole. It's simple, and very effective.

The kitchen also sends out a wonderful albondigas soup, heavy with meatballs, squash, tomatoes, rice, onions and celery. It's not soup season in the Valley, but this hearty homemade broth can tempt you to ignore the calendar.

What's a good way to test the character of Az-Mex fare? Order a combination plate. If you can't tell the enchilada from the chile relleno, or the tamale from the burro, it's not a good sign. Too often in this town, you stick a fork into something, take a bite and ask yourself, "What's that?"

That won't be a problem here. The tastes are distinctive. They're flavorful, too. The chile relleno is on target, not too eggy, with just the right amount of cheese and a bit of bite. Tamales are superb. The thick beef tamale gets a boost from the sharp red-chile sauce. The green corn tamale is even better: moist, a bit sweet and with deep corn taste. And there's no mistaking the mild green cheese enchilada for anything else.

In the mood for a burro? The chorizo-and-egg model is particularly well-fashioned, a pleasing combination of texture and taste. The machaca burro, though, is less interesting. Sure, it's crammed full with shredded beef, but it's a one-note affair that seems to have been seasoned principally with air.

The flautas are a much better vehicle for machaca. The fried corn tortillas are rolled around the beef and gilded with cheese and guacamole. You might not want to order this the evening before your annual physical, but it's undeniably tasty. So is the green chile, a stew of tender beef in a green sauce that's mild without being dull. If you're looking for something with more kick, go for the red-chile popover, fry bread heaped with beef in a sharp red sauce.

Feeling flush? At $7.50, the shrimp ranchero plate is the most expensive menu item. You'll get a big serving of crustaceans in a beautifully spiced ranchero sauce pungent with onions, garlic and cilantro.

A fresh-fried apple chimichanga ends the meal on a sweet note. If you're hunting for reliable Az-Mex fare, at La Familia, they're playing your song.

Hatch Valley Chile Co.:
Gordita plate
Akela chicken
Rio Grande combo

La Familia Mexican Restaurant:
Cheese crisp
Tamale/enchilada combo
Chile relleno dinner


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