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Veni Vida Vici

Arturo Rodriguez, co-owner of Asi Es La Vida.
Jackie Mercandetti

The soup is fashioned from little more than cilantro, garlic, potatoes, avocado and chicken stock. It's entirely simple. Still, the concoction has me mesmerized.

I could buy these ingredients in any grocery store. I've got the knives with which to chop, the pots in which to simmer. I could measure the fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables with meticulous care, and follow detailed instructions on what to add when, how long to heat what. I could read a recipe to know the exact moment at which to pull the pot off the stove for serving the steaming soup to my guests.

But no way could I ever make it taste like this bowl of crema de cilantro in front of me. The soup is the color of an emerald, and it tastes green -- intensely vivid, plucked straight from the earth. The thick puree pulses with the lively, pungent fragrance of the leaves and stems of the coriander plant; it's decorated with a sprig of the herb, and flurries of black pepper. The sharp cilantro is gentled by the potato; the avocado adds silky texture. It's perfect.

How in the world does the chef do it?

I hate this cliché: cooking with love. But that smarmy assessment is all I can figure. Because at Asi es la Vida, the "new" (more on that later) regional Mexican restaurant in central Phoenix, I can literally taste the passion.

Asi es la Vida translates to "such is life." Longtime food fans will recognize the name as belonging to the restaurant that burst on the Valley's dining scene in 1993, and was immediately lauded by The New York Times as one of Phoenix's most interesting dining destinations. It was the first time most of us had run across delicacies like central Mexican moles and stews spiced with smoky chipotles, sour-orange juice and fragrant achiote, the native ingredient that adds brilliant red-orange color and a musky flavor to sauces. The place quickly became a favorite, playing to diners intrigued by the idea of nopal polanco, a pad of prickly pear cactus draped with chorizo and Chihuahua cheese (the region of Mexico, not the tiny dog).

Owner Moises Treves sold a second location to a franchisee at Scottsdale and Shea, but quickly, success bit back. There were legal problems with the changing ownerships, and, ultimately, a run-in with the health department involving the Phoenix location. Initially, the health violations were fairly run-of-the mill, including poor cleaning practices and outdated construction. Such problems are easily fixed, but the owners didn't bother, according to health department records. So the county revoked the restaurant's operating permit three months after the health department first took note of the concerns.

Adding insult, Valley diners backlashed against dramatically increased prices at the Scottsdale store, refusing to return to a place that charged $40 for a plate of rabbit. Both restaurants closed in 1999, and Treves sold used cars for a while before returning to Mexico.

Now, Such is Life is back, at its original location with a slightly different name, purchased by former patrons and chefs - most prominently brothers Arturo, Raul and Jorge Rodriguez - and its original menu. Just to keep things confusing, while Treves is no longer and owner of the enterprise, he does stop in periodically to cook.

Almost nothing about the former culinary glory has been lost in the transition. The only thing gone is in the translation: The name was not included in the transaction when Treves sold to the Rodriguez'. So in a clever twist, the group simply went to the Spanish dictionary.

Only true love for the cuisine could inspire Asi's owners to take on such an operation again. In the past decade, the Mexican food scene in this town has matured. Asi is up against competition this time around. There's the ultra-trendy Barrio Cafe, and the soon-to-come Mucho Gusto Mexican Cantina, both celebrating the cuisine of central-southern Mexico. The fancy Mezcal in north Scottsdale has helped make spunky Hispanic recipes a more familiar mainstay, with gutsy dishes like puerco al pasilla con huitlacoche (sliced pork tenderloin with an intense sauce of corn, chiles and huitlacoche -- corn fungus with a truffle-like taste). Today, our cafe crawlers are more educated about the charms of exotic chiles like guajillo, and cheeses like cotija -- they demand perfection in food and experience, not just novelty. And a few Asi dishes are simply so-so.

Abandonment hasn't been kind to Asi's building either -- the place is a bit frayed around the edges. There's a bicycle lock hanging from a door leading to an unfinished upstairs tapas bar, and for some reason, management doesn't club dining room smokers over the head -- the wafting nicotine is old-feeling and obnoxious.

 

That said, I think this restaurant is fabulous. Call it that passion thing. The love shows in the attentive service, the constant offerings to prepare our meals in any way we choose, the elaborate descriptions of daily specials -- I swear, on one visit, I'm convinced my waiter went diving off the coast of Rocky Point himself for the shrimp, he's so ecstatic over their quality.

Indeed, anytime I don't finish my plate, I've got to convince my server, the manager, and, at one point, the chef, that everything is all right (I'm a slow eater, okay? And I've realized the only way to keep dining companions coming out with me is to pack my meal into leftover cartons as soon as my guests have finished). When I hardly make a dent in my chilaquiles, I'm told that the chef will be heartbroken if I don't like the dish. But I do like it. The tumble of torn corn tortillas is layered with green chiles, onion, tons of gooey white cheese and spicing that sears the back of my throat.

I'm not the only one seduced. For one dinner, my guests include a teenager, a boy heretofore more drawn to an unadorned T-bone than ropa vieja (it literally means "old clothes" because that's how the dish of shredded beef with potatoes in a fire-alarm red sauce looks). Another guest is at first intimidated by the concept that a black bean soup includes a "do-it-yourself" add-in bar of three salsas, bacon and white cheese. But by the end of the meal, they're both proclaiming this food a revelation, and as I chat with our server, my companions shamelessly scrape up every last drop of caramel sauce from our dessert of custard crepe.

On another evening, a guest can't stop cooing over his pescado a la veracruzana, "What an adventure. Oh my. How do they cook like this?" It's a superior fish dish: Chilean sea bass wonderfully moist in its own baked broth sparkling with garlic, tomato, onion, capers, green olives and a splash of white wine. I've had Chilean sea bass hundreds of times elsewhere, but rarely as juicy and rich as this. We mop up the liquor with toasted French bread, and the chef has graciously added a few of those gorgeous monster garlic shrimp on the side.

In traditional Oaxacan manner, the table is set with salsa, but no chips (the teenager is distressed by this, the ramekins set out like ketchup and mustard, so our server brings a plate of smashed tostadas for dipping). Instead of snacks, though, salsas are used as condiments to blend with dishes -- a tear-inducing chocolately chipotle blend, lemony zingy tomatillo, and mild pico de gallo that are all made fresh each day.

We try all three on a special appetizer of the day, chilito poblano. The salsas are all excellent, sprucing up an already spectacular spicy poblano stuffed with chipotle, premium jumbo shrimp and roasted garlic folded into corn tortillas. The sauces add punch, too, to sincronizadas, essentially a quesadilla brimming with Chichuahua cheese and our choice of vegetables, pork, chicken, homemade chorizo or beef (hint: go with the servers' recommendation of a chorizo-beef combo). We splash salsa into our soups, dynamic creations like rich and silky black bean; sopa de tortilla of spicy chicken broth with tortilla strips, avocado and buckets of Oaxacan cheese; and a sumptuous caldo de rajas, a specialty of poblanos, onions and potatoes in hearty chicken stock swirled with cream.

Entrees showcase the regional cuisine's adventure. Cochinita pibil is tender shredded pork slow-roasted in a vibrant achiote sauce with orange juice and sweet red onions to be wrapped in warm corn tortillas. Enormous Guaymas shrimp are butterflied for the camaron al mojo de ajo, baked with garlic and olive oil, and bedded on a salad of lettuce, tomato, avocado, radish and lime alongside garlic bread. And though I'm disappointed that my Borrego azteca (leg of lamb) doesn't come on the bone (for my dog, you know), I'm mighty happy with the moist meat marinated in garlic, olive oil, fresh herbs and spices plus mischievously hot guajillo chile.

There are only two things on this menu that don't impress me. Both are offered at lunch. Cesina is tough and tastes like liver, the thinly sliced top sirloin cured in olive oil and spices, grilled, and served with chilaquiles, refried beans and guacamole. Mole, that highly complex recipe, is strangely flat, not the robust version I remember from the first Such is Life.

Any missteps are forgiven at dessert, with that terrific caramel crepe, and the restaurant's signature napolitano, a rich combination of cheesecake and flan. Our server, seeing my group's excitement, shares the story of an elderly woman, a regular customer who, on one evening, downed a few too many of Asi's outstanding, tart, sparkly margaritas. She picked up her crepe plate, and in full public view, licked it clean.

 

Who could blame her? She must have been -- dare I say it -- in love.

E-mail carey.sweet@newtimes.com

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