Dos Flamingos, 10155 East Via Linda, Scottsdale, 391-0460. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Sunday, 4 to 10 p.m.

What makes America's great cities great? Museums? Sure. Nightlife? Absolutely. Cosmopolitan bustle? Of course.

But most of all, great cities are identified with distinctive kinds of food.
So if you want a fresh pastrami sandwich on real Jewish rye, you head to the Big Apple.

If you want sprout-topped California salads sprinkled with organic sunflower seeds, you trek to the Big Orange.

If you want gumbo and crayfish born on the bayou, you take off for the Big Easy.

And now, I've discovered, if you crave authentic Americanized Mexican food, you can make a run for the border of Scottsdale, the lard-free Big Enchilada.

How can you tell a Scottsdale restaurant, like the newly opened Dos Flamingos, serves genuine Americanized Mexican fare?

First, check out the decor. Look for a bright, tropical motif. At Dos Flamingos, you'll find large, airy rooms, bent cane chairs, bamboo fans slowly turning along a rotating 50-foot-long paddle suspended from the ceiling, and a live palm tree in the center of the room.

A colorful mix of peach, purple, lime and turquoise shows up on napkins, place mats, artificial flowers and dinnerware, along with vibrant yellow duct work overhead. Second, check out the menu. It's tailored to gringo tastes, with comfortable choices like tacos and chimichangas. Bumpkins can even choose hamburgers or grilled cheese sandwiches. But there will also be a few intriguing choices that don't look like they came off the Taco Bell drive-through board.

And third, check out the ingredients. The chefs will show an almost maternal interest in your health. They'll forswear lard for canola oil, use "lite" sour cream and low-fat cheese and skin their chickens.

On a recent Saturday night, an uncharacteristic lapse in my eating schedule--late breakfast, no lunch--had left me susceptible to appetizers I usually avoid.

Given the chance, I'm prone to pig out on nachos washed down by beer. But a glance at a trio of equally hungry companions reassured me that I'd never be able to hog these seafood treats.

I was right. A heaping portion of chips, plenty for four, came drenched in bubbling jack and cheddar cheeses, with some spinach and tomatoes blended in. On top perched a few teeny shrimp, some meaty hunks of fish and "krab." Guacamole, sour cream and sliced jalapeos came on the side. We packed it away, only temporarily disconcerted by the puddle of grease collecting at the bottom of the platter. (Hint to management: Change the shape of the serving dish.)

Luckily, the nachos competition had primed our appetites, not ruined them, so we still had plenty of enthusiasm for the interesting-sounding main dishes.

But they turned out to be a lot less challenging than we hoped. Instead, they seemed geared toward the kind of people who might summon up enough courage to take an escorted tour of Tijuana, but who wouldn't think of stepping off the bus.

Pollo de Acapulco, located under the menu's "Specialties of Mexico" section, is a grilled skinless chicken breast, topped with cheese and a mild red jalapeo sauce, tangy but not overpowering. It's a pretty tame and unmemorable concoction, a perfect specimen of Americanized Mexican cuisine.

Flautas especiale brought three crispy corn tortillas "stuffed," according to the menu, with a blend of shrimp, crab and fish. But in fact, it's such a miserly blend that you get as much flavor of the sea driving over the Salt River. This dish simply won't float.

I had high hopes for the unusual tortitas de carne, described as marinated shredded beef tossed in egg batter and sauted in a homemade tomatillo sauce.

But once again, what turned up was a gringoized platter of gloppy beef chunks that made us glad we had filled in the cracks with nachos. The dishes come with good rice, so-so beans and a welcome, off-beat garnish of red cabbage, jicama and green onion.

Predictably enough, it was the traditional gringo food and straight-out American items that showed where the kitchen's true skills lay.

Only the prospect of a New York strip steak had persuaded my daughter to accompany us in the first place, and she wasn't disappointed. It was a big, juicy slab, a bargain at $5.95.

The spinach enchilada also hit a high note, and we scraped its plate clean. But you pay for your thrills: $4.95 for one la carte enchilada seems a bit steep.

I enjoyed, too, the red beef tamale, even though I ordered the green corn version. It had a vigorous, beefy flavor, and the strong taste of corn.

The desserts won't shock anyone with their novelty, but they're worth sampling. My daughter devoured the big bowl of fried ice cream, rolled in a crunchy honey coating. And the sopaipillas also came the way I like, airy and puffy, coated with cinnamon and sugar. Only the flan seemed ordinary, not particularly creamy or rich.

Dos Flamingos has one definite plus, a comfortable, oversize bar area. These days on Friday and Saturday nights, Khani Cole is performing.

If you require an Americanized tour of Mexican cuisine, without ever, gastronomically speaking, getting off the bus, you can safely leave the driving to Dos Flamingos.

Paradise Piata, 8260 North Hayden, Scottsdale, 483-7856. Summer Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 4:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Like Dos Flamingos, Paradise Piata meets all three Scottsdale criteria for genuine Americanized Mexican fare.

Here, too, the rooms are large and airy, the color scheme bright. But there's lots more to look at, from piatas to huge dried arrangements. A faux balcony overlooks the main dining room, where two life-size mariachi dolls serenade a woman. Framed folk-art appliqu scenes decorate the walls--check out the peasants tending a field of cloth tomatoes.

Next, glance at the menu: Tostadas, enchiladas, burros and tacos, in various combinations and permutations, provide most of the reading matter. But a few nonroutine dishes also pop up for the cautiously adventurous. Naturally, hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches are available for the gastronomically impaired.

And, of course, cholesterol-free frying oil reveals the restaurant's tender concern for our health, as does the diet margarita.

Diet margarita? The menu promises the "same great flavor" with fewer calories and one-third less alcohol. But it ain't so. I'd rather do my body a favor skipping the margaritas once in a while than put up with this zipless drink. Let's face it: If you want to avoid calories at a Mexican restaurant, you're better off keeping your snout out of the chips and salsa.

Which, needless to say, was my very next stop. That was because the appetizers seemed a bit too expensive and ordinary to tempt us. Five bucks for plain nachos, chips and guacamole dip, or cheese crisp sounded extravagant. So we focused on the fresh chips, which came with a pleasant, sinus-clearing chunky salsa.

We again scouted out the nongringo main dishes, about a half-dozen or so scattered about the menu.

Pollo pibil hails from the Yucatn, here served as chunks of skinless chicken breast in pungently seasoned red sauce. It's a different taste, but not bizarre or superheated, and the dish comes with firm, flavorful Mexican rice and some ordinary beans and salad.

Posting a "For the Brave" warning in front of a dish excites me the same way a mountain exhilarates Sir Edmund Hillary or a women's glee club rouses Wilt Chamberlain.

But Paradise Piata's chipotle shrimp--chipotle are smoke-dried jalapeos--will confer bravery on just about anyone. It's a great-tasting dish, though: six medium-size sauted shrimp, in a hot-sweet-smoky sauce thickened with tomatoes, onion, celery and cilantro. Both dishes were improved by a serving of corn tortillas, but you'll have to ask, or otherwise do without. On a surprisingly busy midweek summer night, as we might have suspected, most patrons were heading down the gringo-food trail, so we tailed along for a while, too.

I may have been betrayed by my own low expectations, but some of these items caught my fancy. The spinach enchilada came slathered in a mild green sauce and packed a hefty load of greenery. The machaca taco offered up tender, nicely spiced shredded chunks of beef in a fresh, crunchy corn tortilla. But the green corn tamale couldn't pass our border inspection--it was too dry.

Of the three desserts we sampled, the flan was far and away the best. It had a silky smooth texture, the distinctive flavor of burnt caramel and a dash of rum. The sopaipillas came hot and fresh out of the kitchen, liberally sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. But they were too thick and bready for my taste.

The churros were a disaster. They had all the soft, chewy appeal of a police officer's nightstick, but without an enticing aroma. Let's hope the new Mexican free-trade pact outlaws their production.


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