Tortilla Flash

Wrap City Grill, 4423 East Thomas, Phoenix, 956-9727. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

We Valley dwellers have a lot of things going for us. But being on the cutting edge of popular culture isn't one of them.

Touring versions of shows that opened on Broadway during the Bush administration take so long to get here you'd think the cast and set traveled by wagon train. Movies hailed by Los Angeles film critics as "among the best of 1996" don't show up in our theaters until 1997. And fashion? I have a feeling Parisian couturiers won't be accessorizing this year's collection with bola ties, cowboy hats or shoulder holsters.

Our local food scene is also behind the times. Fads from America's culinary capitals make a leisurely trip to us in the boonies. That's why we've had to wait several years for one of Southern California's hottest eating concepts to cross the Mojave Desert: wraps.

Remember the gourmet-pizza craze that Wolfgang Puck created at Spago in the early 1980s? He got the brilliant notion of topping pizza with all sorts of then-exotic items that you'd never find at a neighborhood pizzeria: goat cheese, pesto, barbecued duck. (At Vinnie's Pizzeria, in my old neighborhood, a gourmet pizza was any pizza that Vinnie shooed the flies from.) The trendoids loved Puck's innovation, and the mass-marketers quickly picked up on it. These days, of course, the concept is so thoroughly a part of American culinary consciousness that it's become a cliche.

Wraps are a twist on this idea. But instead of pizza crust, this time the object of culinary affection and attention is the flour tortilla. Traditionally, plain tortillas lined with salsa enfolded some combination of beans, meat and cheese. Eating a burro has been about as trendy as dancing the polka.

Not anymore. Now, tortillas are being stuffed with everything from chicken sausage to blackened mahimahi, embellished with the likes of stir-fried broccoli or Cajun rice, and moistened with a honey-barbecue glaze or a tangerine-sesame sauce. And the plain tortilla has given way to models that would make Mexican villagers scratch their heads in amazement: jalapeno-cilantro tortillas; spinach-pesto tortillas; honey-wheat tortillas.

It's probably only a matter of time until tortillas, like pizza and bagels, shed their ethnic character and become part of the American culinary melting pot. How can you think otherwise, when even chains like Long John Silver's and Taco Bell have taken up the wrap concept?

You can glimpse the wrap future at Wrap City Grill. Right now, it sets the standard by which local wraps are going to be judged.

The place occupies the corner of a massive, sprawling, traffic-clogged, consumer-unfriendly, California-type shopping center at 44th Street and Thomas. Wrap City Grill's cheery, colorful interior has a California look, too: neon beer signs, tabletops brightened with nifty collages, tiny lights twinkling overhead. Naturally, the three televisions behind the bar are tuned to sports, and rock music blares out of the music system. It's a look that fairly screams, "Franchise me." I certainly wouldn't mind, as long as the operators could keep up the quality.

Although Wrap City Grill offers salads and burgers, the 18 imaginative wraps are the heart of this operation. They're wonderful, fresh, huge, heavy, filling critters that are almost as suitable for bench-pressing as they are for eating. Management ought to consider offering half-size options.

Beginners may want to start off conservatively, with meat and potatoes. That would be the Kansas City wrap, lots of tender grilled steak, bacon-flecked mashed potatoes, grilled onions and peppers, black-bean-and-corn relish, and a kicky sweet/spicy barbecue sauce that brings everything together, all folded into a sun-dried-tomato-and-basil tortilla.

If you want to get more daring, there's plenty of opportunity. The Goat and Thai wrap's principal ingredient is chicken breast grilled in a peanut-barbecue sauce, teamed with fruited rice in a chile tortilla. If you're looking for some heat, check out the Ragin' Cajun Shrimp wrap, decent-size shrimp (not those teeny creatures that shouldn't even be called "shrimp") paired with Cajun rice, olives, a bit of goat cheese and tomatillo salsa with a real hot pepper snap.

I'm particularly fond of the fish wraps. The Rocky Point wrap employs grilled fish, fruited rice, spinach and an effective chipotle honey sauce. The Fin There Done That wrap (yes, the cutesy names get wearying after a while) is even better: lightly seared ahi tuna partnered with veggies in a quirky peanut sauce.

It will probably take a few visits to screw your courage up to the point where you can order the Ajo Alfredo or Godfather wraps. The former features ground chicken sausage, risotto, coleslaw, roasted garlic tomatillo salsa and a "Southwest" Alfredo sauce. The latter brings together chicken sausage, garlic-basil mashed potatoes, black-bean-corn relish, "Mediterranean" coleslaw, roasted garlic red sauce and pesto-goat-cheese sauce.  

If those are too daunting, you can always retreat to the tasty BLT wrap: bacon, lettuce and tomato gilded with rice, spinach and what the menu calls an "avocado zucchini sauce." All the wraps come with fresh chips and house-made pico de gallo that's much better than it has to be.

Vegetarians aren't forgotten. Two good-for-you models, one featuring grilled portabella mushroom, the other a less interesting mix of veggies, are also available.

If your group enjoys experimenting, consider nibbling on the Wrap City pizza. It looks like what would result if you mated a pizza to nachos: a baked whole-wheat tortilla, layered with cheese, beans, sun-dried tomato, chicken sausage, olives and fresh tomato. Wash it down with one of eight beers on tap, or a well-made fruit smoothie.

Wrap City Grill may be yesterday's news in California, but it's good news for Phoenix. This place produces the kind of wrap music that anyone could put up with.

That's a Wrap!, 2022 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 252-5051. Hours: Breakfast and Lunch, Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

If you enjoy solitude, keep away from That's a Wrap! during the noon hour. The lunch crowd has discovered this small, bustling place, filling up the small parking lot and grabbing all the inside seats, and sometimes all the seats on the small patio out back.

It's easy to understand what's luring them here: a "wrap sheet" listing a dozen specialty wraps, some of which could make lunch the highlight of anybody's working day.

Step up to the "Order Here" counter and tell the help what you want. If you can't find a seat, you can peer into the kitchen and pass the time watching the staff furiously cooking and wrapping. It's a reassuring sight, seeing everything get made up fresh.

The Scottsdale wrap made my day. It's the best wrap here, and the most expensive at $6.25. Look for a combination of sauteed mahimahi, shrimp, mushrooms, snow peas, onion, jasmine rice and a bit of Brie, all coated with a fabulous garlic sauce. This is one flavorful sandwich, one that will unwrap your taste buds.

So will the Phoenix wrap. This tasty model brings together teriyaki chicken and shrimp, along with some vaguely Oriental rice, onions, peppers, water chestnuts and broccoli. If the kitchen had used a moo shu crepe instead of a whole-wheat tortilla, you might be fooled into thinking you were at a Chinese restaurant.

Folks who enjoy the scent of cumin should consider making a meal out of the Sedona wrap. This one comes with grilled chicken breast, Mexican rice, beans and onions, wrapped in a red chile tortilla. It also comes lined with Goldwater's fiery Sedona Red Hot Salsa, which can tear the lips off the unwary. Unless you have an asbestos mouth, you may want the kitchen to put on something somewhat less incendiary. (That's a Wrap! offers the full line of outstanding Goldwater salsas.)

If you need a high-octane midday fill-up, I suggest you look into the Now That's a Wrap! option. It's a hefty two-hander, filled to bursting with steak, chicken and shrimp, then fortified with rice, black beans, onions, peppers, cheese, tomatoes and greens. It ought to come with a cot, so you can take a quick nap.

That's a Wrap! offers two wraps aimed at the healthful-living, meatless crowd. The Papago wrap is the winning choice. A chile-pesto tortilla is artistically filled with jasmine rice, tomatoes, cucumbers, sprouts, broccoli, onions and avocado. (The menu also promised capers, but my thorough dissection didn't turn up any.) The ingredients are all pleasantly moistened with a perky garlic-yogurt dressing, which gives the wrap a Middle Eastern flair.

Less enticing is the Rio Verde wrap. I suppose that's because its main ingredient is sauteed tofu, not the world's most provocative flavor experience. Rice, broccoli, water chestnuts, onions, peppers and snow peas help, but can't lift this wrap out of the realm of the bland.

I also wouldn't revisit the Bisbee barbecue wrap. The grilled steak was too chewy, and the lackluster barbecue sauce didn't have enough oomph.

That's a Wrap! wisely gives customers the option of ordering half wraps. (Actually, they seemed more like three-quarter wraps to me, and should satisfy the lunchtime appetite of most office workers.) You can also get a caffeine jolt from Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, which is sold for a budget-friendly tag of $1.50. However, I'd steer clear of the smoothies, which are made from a mix, not fresh ingredients. It's an odd decision, one that clashes with the made-to-order, fresh-wrap concept.  

That's a Wrap! won't make it any easier to crawl out of bed and head in to work. But once you arrive, the prospect of lunch here should give you the will to soldier on until the noon whistle.

Wrap City Grill:
Wrap City pizza
Kansas City wrap
Fin There
Done That wrap

That's a Wrap!:
Papago wrap
Sedona wrap

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