The Price Is Slight

Centro Cafe & Bakery, 2831 North 24th Street, Phoenix, 224-9235. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11a.m. to 9 p.m.; Dinner, Saturday, 4 to 9p.m.; closed Sunday.

We're only a few days into 1996, and my resolution to carry out my resolutions is already wearing out.

For instance, in order to get my height-weight ratio into better balance, I've resolved to be six inches taller. So far, however, I have nothing--not even a centimeter--to show for my efforts.

I resolved to raise my net worth by 100 percent. So what happens? The even-money favorite at Turf Paradise runs second. Instead of doubling my portfolio, now I'm out the whole two bucks.

Concerned with family values, I resolved to spend more time with my wife and children. Is it my fault that they didn't want to share quality moments together watching 14 hours of football on January 1? ("Honey, kids, come sit next to me on the sofa. And bring the chips.")

They say that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Faced with adversity, I go eating. At least something has worked out for me this year.

That's because I stumbled onto two first-rate restaurants, each offering high-quality fare at prices that won't push holiday-straitened budgets over the edge.

Centro Cafe & Bakery is a real find. Set in a typically unglamorous strip mall in an unglamorous part of town, it's not the kind of place you're likely towander into serendipitously. (I was tipped to it by a reader.)

Inside, the proprietor has done the best he could to make diners comfortable. The ten tables are covered with green linen tablecloths under protective glass, and adorned with a silk rose. Ansel Adams photos hang from one wall, Sedona Jazz Festival posters line another. The sole waitress is efficient and eager to please.

Open about three months, the place is operated by a young chef who can't be more than a few years removed from his senior prom. But in this case, youth clearly isn't wasted on the young. The landlord of this property would be wise to lock him quickly into a long-term lease. Because if Junior can manage the business end of Centro Cafe & Bakery as well as he can cook, this place is going to be around for quite a while.

The food is Italian, with lots of Greek and Middle Eastern touches. That basically means pasta, either topped by sauces or partnered with seafood or chicken. But the vigorous scents of the southern and eastern Mediterranean infuse just about everything: Count on some combination of sun-dried tomatoes, eggplant, artichokes, lemon, basil, dill, capers, wine and cheese to titillate your senses of taste and smell. And count on tons of garlic. The chef throws it around with all the abandon of a superstitious Transylvanian villager.

Centro Cafe & Bakery's menu and prices (nothing goes for more than $8.95) strongly reminded me of Mike's Golden Crust, a west-side Italian/Greek restaurant with wonderful, low-cost fare. (It's at 15820 North 35th Avenue.) After I mentioned the similarities to the waitress, she told me the chef had worked with Mike until they had a "falling-out." Well, there's no shame in stealing a good idea, especially if you're talented enough to execute the concept.

One lesson the chef has learned is the importance of good bread. He bakes some warm, crunchy focaccia and inventively teams it with a garlicky hummus dip. The only problem: I could make a meal of it.

But if I did, I'd be depriving myself of some exceptional dishes. Among the appetizers, for example, look out for the luscious rock shrimp cakes: two plump, skillet-fried croquettes fashioned with lots of shrimp and a bucketful of diced tomatoes and garlic. It's yummy, and a steal at $4.95. Spanakopita also is nicely done, a massive piece of phyllo dough stuffed full of spinach, feta cheese and pine nuts, all freshened with dill and smothered, somewhat unnecessarily, in tomato sauce.

But the biggest appetizer surprise is the sauteed calamari. Most calamari dishes tend to have the texture of the Sunday paper's rubber band. But this platter is a revelation, as good as I've had in the Valley. The secret, says the chef, is getting the pan really hot and cooking the calamari for just a few brief moments. Then he adds some herbs and lots of lemon, and sprinkles on a bit of cheese. Just thinking about it gets my appetite juices flowing.

The menu doesn't mention it, but main dishes all come with salad. It's better than it has to be, aided by a tart, homemade vinaigrette.

Pasta entrees share three appealing traits: You get ample portions, great taste and change back from a ten. Pasta pescatore brings a bowl of linguini supporting tender calamari, scallops and two firm jumbo shrimp, moistened with a full-bodied marinara sauce. Rigatoni dotted with bits of pancetta and asparagus comes smoothed in creamy sauce, all draped with a three-cheese crust. Penne melanzane stars big chunks of roasted eggplant tossed with pasta and cheese. Manicotti Florentine employs fresh pasta tubes crammed with several cheeses and spinach and baked in Alfredo sauce.

And lasagna gets zipped up by homemade sausage, although you have to wade through a pool of tomato sauce to find it.

You can also choose from fivechicken dishes. I'm partial to chicken scarpara, grilled chicken breast and sausage in a lemony white-wine sauce, served with spaghetti and steamed vegetables. How the kitchen can send this out, along with focaccia and salad, for $7.45 is a mystery I'm happy not to solve.

And if you're really feeling pinched for pennies, don't hesitate to grab a sandwich. They're as good as everything else, because the chef makes his own pita bread. The chicken-and-artichoke model is terrific, embellished with sun-dried tomatoes and cheese.

The good times don't stop there. The chef doesn't take the lazy way out and order desserts from a supplier. He makes his own. And both the tiramisu and chocolate cream puff put an exclamation mark on an already very satisfying meal.

Centro Cafe & Bakery also has a consumer-friendly BYOB policy. For a buck a person, you can bring in your own cold brews or a bottle of your favorite Italian red. You might want to raise your glass in the chef's direction and say, "Here's looking at you, kid."

Hearty Hen Cafe, 10830 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 9511151. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, 7a.m. to 9p.m., seven days a week.

A north Scottsdale restaurant with charming good looks and topnotch, homey fare, where almost every dinner entree is priced at $7.95 or less? There are only two explanations: You're either dreaming or you're dining at Hearty Hen Cafe.

The clean, cozy setting may remind you of grandma's house, if grandma themed her home around chickens. As soon as you enter, you'll spot the glassed-in brick rotisserie, spinning the restaurant's signature birds. Around the L-shaped room, you'll see walls and shelves covered with chickenalia: old prints of prize-winning hens, oil paintings ofroosters and various forms of chicken-shaped chinaware.

The food also resembles the fare grandma would have served: simple, hearty, homemade and satisfying.

There's no appetizer list, so you'll start off with thesoups or salads that accompany dinners. Routine greenery won't jump-start too many appetites, but the soups just might. That's because they clearly haven't been poured out of a can. The chicken noodle soup is notable for its lack of salt. Instead, youget a broth that derives its flavor from chicken, carrots and celery, not sodium. The thick tomato basil soup packs a comparable flavor punch. Dunk in some whole-wheat rolls (which were still fresh at 8p.m., an hour before closing).

The hot entrees stick to the basics. But most of them will also stick in your mind. The rotisserie fowl, right off the spit, is moist and pleasantly plump. Chicken pot pie, often a boggy, gelatinous mess, is done right, a big helping of chicken, peas, carrots and celery in a creamy gravy under a canopy of pastry crust. Slabs of carrot-specked meat loaf, in a puddle of thick brown gravy, sport a beefy taste. However, the barbecued ribs, coated with a mild, inoffensive sauce, lacked character.

Excellent side dishes give the entrees a boost. Peppery, garlicky mashed potatoes come doused in chicken gravy. Glazed yams are burnished with a coating of brown sugar. And cold green beans, in a tomato-onion sauce, combine nutrition with taste.

If none of the entrees excites you, perhaps the "Hearty Wraps" will. These oversize sandwiches--they're big enough to bench press--are made with delicious, homemade cracked-wheat chapati bread. The rib-sticking model I sampled came stuffed with rotisserie chicken, hummus, rice pilaf, tomatoes, cucumber, onions and lettuce. (Hearty Hen recently opened another Scottsdale branch, at 7111 East Fifth Avenue, that specializes in these "Hearty Wraps.")

Too heavy? Try a salad. Oriental chicken salad is nicely put together, with lots of chicken breast, mandarin orange, toasted almonds and chapati strips in a perky orange sesame dressing.

The homemade desserts are flat-out scrumptious. Pecan pie, thick, sweet, gooey and rich, is addicting enough to require a surgeon general's warning. The cobblers--Itried both the blackberry and cherry--manage to balance on that fine line between sweet and tart, without tipping over either way. Each is loaded with fruit under a marvelous glazed crust.

We also got to feast on some sticky cinnamon buns, gratis. The kitchen staff wrapped up the remaining three unsold buns for us to take home, saying it was late and it didn't want the pastries to go to waste. Two points: 1) If, at 9 p.m., on top of a full meal, cinnamon buns taste this good, there's no telling how irresistible they'd be earlier in the day on an empty stomach; 2) Hearty Hen evidently doesn't try to palm off day-old sweets on its customers.

In fact, Hearty Hen doesn't palm off anything on its customers, except good food and good value. And that's worth clucking about.

Centro Cafe &Bakery:
Sauteed calamari
Chicken-and-artichoke sandwich
Penne melanzane
Chocolate creampuffs

Hearty Hen Cafe:
"Hearty Wrap" sandwich
Half-chicken dinner
Meat loaf
Cherry cobbler


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