The Norman Tabernacle
Norman's Arizona, 4410 North 40th Street, Phoenix, 956-2288. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.
Christopher. Vincent. RoxSand. Franco. Razz. Eddie. The Valley has a first-name relationship with a number of outstanding chefs known for their distinctive, creative fare.
It may be time to add the name "Norman" to the list.
Norman is Norman Fierros, whose last restaurant, the short-lived La Pila, showed flashes of brilliance. (Old-timers may recall that, prior to La Pila, he directed Fina Cocina, one of the very few spots where you could get a decent downtown meal.) For the past couple of years, Fierros has remained on the sidelines, apparently missing out on our town's restaurant gravy train. But clearly, he's now back on track. After just a few months, his latest venture, Norman's Arizona, is already steaming ahead of the restaurant pack. From salsas to tortillas, from appetizers to desserts, his "Nueva Mexicana" cuisine is giving off sparks.
What does "Nueva Mexicana" mean? It sure doesn't mean Sonoran-style Mexican cooking: You won't find an enchilada, taco or burro on this menu. It does mean fresh, regional ingredients, artfully combined and skillfully prepared.
Norman could always cook. But he hasn't always been adept at choosing a location and coming up with an appealing restaurant design. (La Pila was buried in the basement of an office building, and had the sterile warmth of a corporate dining room.) This time, however, he's got it right on both counts.
He had the good sense to set up in Arcadia, off the main drag, in a shopping-strip storefront where rents aren't nearly as high as they are on high-profile Camelback Road, a few blocks north. Norman's fans have quickly found the place. I came on a couple of midweek summer nights, usually the deadest time of the year, and the place was almost full.
The bright, airy room sends the neighborhood's disposable-income crowd all the right messages. The tables are set with white linen and wonderfully hefty silverware. Impressive local art (it's for sale) hangs from the walls. So do a nifty wreath, fashioned from cactus pads and dried red chiles, and numerous awards attesting to Norman's cooking prowess. You can fix your eyes on the culinary team at work in the open kitchen or gaze out the window at Camelback Mountain in the distance.
The dinner menu is a study in sophisticated simplicity. There isn't much breadth--maybe a half-dozen appetizers and entrees, and three desserts. But just about every dish has remarkable depth. This is the kind of food that tastes every bit as good on the last bite as it does on the first.
Norman knows his customers. They don't want to gorge on greasy fried tortilla chips. So he bakes them homemade chips, and sends out two beautiful salsas, a chunky pico de gallo and a zesty chipotle with a snout-clearing punch.
The neighborhood, he probably thinks, might be a little skittish of a raw, Mexican-style seafood cocktail. So the kitchen gently poaches shrimp, clams and fish, and floats them in a delightful tomato sauce stocked with onion, cucumber and avocado. It tastes like the Mexican coast on a summer's day. Still, I wouldn't have minded some octopus and squid in the mix.
Tamalitos are baby tamales, and they're scrumptious. You get six, and if you're smart, you'll ask for three of each kind: a vigorous red-chile model and those made from sweet green corn.
If you're in the mood for a crispy fried starter, the chicken taquitos make for effective munching. The tomatillo avocado dipping sauce only adds to the pleasure. And if it's greenery you yearn for, the endive salad, tossed with roasted pecans and Mexican white cheese, is irresistible. So is the mesquite honey vinaigrette, which I wish Norman would bottle and sell retail. Anticipating the wishes of finicky customers, the kitchen automatically delivers the salad dressing on the side.
The main dishes, priced mostly in the $13 to $17 range, are an energetic lot. Think of steak picado as an upscale take on beef fajitas, high-quality beef tenderloin mixed with tomatoes, scallions, mild chile and cilantro, served with rice, beans and lovely homemade tortillas. Chicken machaca brings together white-meat poultry with sauteed potatoes and tomatoes. Like everything else, it's intriguingly seasoned but never overpowering.
There are very few restaurants in town that risk putting rabbit on the menu. Norman's meaty version is first-rate, enlivened with a spicy red-chile marinade and then grilled. (The menu misleadingly calls this dish "rabbit chorizo," but there's no sausage. The "chorizo" refers to the marinade.) The platter is enhanced by a piece of fresh-grilled corn in the husk. Too bad Norman isn't a bit more generous with this in-season treat.
Chile mash is an ingenious idea, mashed spuds capped by a poblano chile and surrounded by bite-size morsels of chicken in a seductive green-chile mole. You get a lot of taste for your $12.50.
Two daily specials also showed flair. Four large Guaymas shrimp came moistened in a heady garlic sauce. Grilled sea bass, accompanied by culiche (a corn-squash mix) also attested to the virtue of simplicity.
Dessert is the part of the meal I'm usually most wary of. Too often, the taste-to-calorie ratio is way out of whack. Not here. Norman's desserts just about blew us away: The next time I come here, I may have to rearrange the traditional meal order and ask for dessert first.
Chocolate mini-chimichangas are Norman's signature sweet, and they're just as good as they were at Fina Cocina and La Pila. Really, how can you go wrong stuffing deep-fried dough with creamy, intense chocolate and sprinkling on powdered sugar? Flan is also exceptional. Instead of a burnt-sugar caramel, Norman flavors his custard with a blueberry, blackberry and strawberry compote.
But the dessert star is the magnificent banana squash pie (that's banana squash, not banana and squash). It may be the single best sweet I've had this year, studded with candied walnuts and citrus, sweetened with piloncillo (unrefined Mexican dark-brown sugar) and topped with fresh cream. It's all I can do, sitting here writing about it, not to shut down the computer and race over to the restaurant and get a piece.
Inevitably, word of Norman's Arizona is going to leak out of the neighborhood. When it does, this place is going to be packed. Norman Fierros has spent a long time pursuing restaurant success. The chase is over. Now let's see how he can manage it.
Irene's Real Mexican Food, 7835 North 19th Avenue, Phoenix, 944-8457. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Unlike Norman, Irene isn't a candidate to join the Valley's restaurant firmament of one-name wonders. No, there's nothing wrong with the fresh-tasting, Sonoran-style cooking here. It's certainly competent. But with a few exceptions, there's little to distinguish it from the hundreds of other places dishing out exactly the same combination plates.
It's not only the menu that seems familiar. Irene's looks like a typical neighborhood Mexican restaurant. Set in a somewhat run-down strip mall, it's got a back-to-the-'70s color scheme, coffee-shop booths, beer-sign art and a velvet painting on the wall.
You're greeted with chips and salsa, neither of which has any distinguishing marks. If you're going to fill up on chips, you're better off splurging on the supreme nachos. "If you haven't had Irene's nachos," boasts the menu, "you haven't had nachos." I wouldn't go that far, but Irene's bubbling version doesn't shortchange you on quantity or quality. A huge mound of chips is buried under an avalanche of cheese, then embellished with fresh tomatoes, strips of green chile and a bit of beef. It's a basic, tasty, substantial nibble, good with a cold brew. If two of you split the large size, don't bother ordering anything else, unless you want to take it home in a doggy bag.
Mexican pizza, in contrast, is a much less satisfactory way to jump-start dinner. It's just a huge, boring, cheese-draped tortilla that fills you up without waking you up.
A few main-dish items got my attention. The half-and-half platter, a side-by-side helping of red and green chile served with tortillas, showed some subtlety. Both the mild red chile and marginally spunkier green chile gave off three dimensions of flavor. The accompanying rice and beans, as well as the iceberg-lettuce salad, were significantly less complex.
I also perked up over the flour enchilada with beef, which greatly benefits from a $1.75 boost of green-chile sauce. ("Hot! Hot!" screams the menu. But it's not nearly as hot as I'd hoped.) The eggy chile relleno is also well-fashioned, spurting with cheese when you pierce it with a fork.
But the other Sonoran staples don't exhibit much character. Enchiladas rancheros, topped with a fried egg, have nothing going for them except heft. The beef tamale, a bit dry, doesn't come anywhere near this town's best versions. The plump chicken taco lacks energy. I had high hopes for the gollo burro, stuffed with green chile, whole bean, onions and cheese. But after two bites I'd plumbed its depths. The red-chile chimichanga arrives fresh, crisp and overstuffed, but it's otherwise unmemorable. And so is the lifeless guacamole, which desperately needs some lemon and pepper to revive it.
No doubt the Az-Mex competition is less fierce in the Globe-Miami area, where Irene's original restaurant is a very popular spot. But Phoenix is the big time. To star in this league, Irene's will have to ratchet it up several notches.
Banana squash pie
Irene's Real Mexican Food:
Supreme nachos (small)
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