WEST SIDE FORAY
Jazelle's Restaurant, 3422 West Glendale Avenue, Phoenix, 841-4776. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
The first week of January is like a seven-day morning after. Pants are tight, wallets are thin, holiday hopes are behind us. And by the time the company deducts from that Christmas bonus for taxes, social security and health benefits, you're looking at maybe four figures, two of them to the right of the decimal point. So at this time of year, I take to heart Thoreau's injunction to "Simplify, simplify." I don't want anything fancy on my plate. And I want a menu with main dishes that come with change from a ten. Where does the search for cheap and basic lead? In this town, it means a trip to the west side. Luckily, I stumbled onto two places that can reliably fill you up without putting you over your credit-card limits. The first is Jazelle's Restaurant, which leads a double life. If you sneak a look while whizzing past it on West Glendale Avenue, the restaurant gives every impression of being a typical American coffee shop. If you stick your head in, that impression is reinforced--orange-vinyl booths, a coffee counter and a menu heavy with burgers, salads and sandwiches. But as Gilbert and Sullivan once noted, things are seldom what they seem. The tip-off is a room off to the left, with a mysterious "Greek-Italian section" sign over the entrance. At first, I thought this might be part of some bizarre customer-ethnicity test. The sign's meaning, however, is much more benign. Enter here and you'll be handed a separate menu offering southern European specialties prepared by Jazelle's Turkish proprietors.
These folks obviously don't believe in throwing money away on decor. If it weren't for the hanging artificial plants, this bare-bones room would have no charm at all. But when meals go for $6 to $9, you can't expect a place to look like the dining hall at Versailles. For distraction, we got to watch one of the owners' kids, working from a reference book, struggling unsuccessfully to properly fold linen napkins. Like the decor, the appetizer list is not much to look at--shrimp cocktail, chicken wings, fried mozzarella. And when we tried to order the Greek salad as a starter, the waitress shook her head. "It's the same as the salad that comes with dinner," she explained, "except it has feta cheese." The greenery, with or without feta, is thoroughly unremarkable. Your best pre-entree munching option: filling up on the excellent breadsticks, coated with garlic, that come with the meal.
Almost all of the main dishes exhibit a tasty Mediterranean flair. The chicken spanakopita plate is outstanding, featuring a big wedge of phyllo dough stuffed with chunks of white meat, chopped spinach, egg and cheese. It's all baked, and served with rice and freshly sauted vegetables: green pepper, broccoli, mushrooms and squash. This is a platter I'd come back for. Jazelle's also does one of my favorite Greek specialties, moussaka, just right. It's alternating layers of sauted eggplant and lightly seasoned ground beef and lamb, topped with a cheesy white sauce. And at $5.95, you can't beat the price. Chicken with artichokes is the kind of dish I'd expect to encounter at a Greek-owned diner in Brooklyn, not in a west Phoenix coffee shop. It's a hearty plate, laden with chicken breast, artichoke hearts, dried tomatoes and walnuts, accompanied by fettuccine and coated with a heavy, white-wine cream sauce. It's hard to believe even a Greek could have the energy to dance and throw plates after polishing this off.
Garithes yiouvesti also displays a vibrant touch. Jazelle's takes half a dozen shrimp and tosses them with fresh tomatoes, garlic and feta cheese, and drapes it all over a mound of rice. It's simple and effective. Oddly enough, the one Greek platter that never should have been let past customs is the inaptly trumpeted house special. It consists of gristly, tooth-resistant chunks of lamb combined with tough slabs of dried apricots. This dish will have your jaws working overtime, and for no particularly compelling reason. I'd rename or rework this platter quickly--there's nothing special about it.
On the other hand, the two Italian entrees I sampled could hold their own against most Phoenix competition. The lasagna is first-rate, a hefty wedge distinguished by lots of cheese, a heavy dose of Italian spices and a full-bodied meat sauce. But think twice about ordering this if you've got a big evening planned. With a cavalier disregard for your postdinner social life, the kitchen tosses in a fistful of whole garlic cloves. Stromboli is also a crowd-pleaser, dough wrapped around a big portion of chicken, spinach, mushrooms and cheese, then baked. Dessert is one of the glories of Greek and Italian cuisine, but Jazelle's evidently thinks customers prefer coffee-shop apple pie to, say, a galaktoboureko or sfogliatella. Still, the sole ethnic effort, an oversize baklava, is as good as I've had recently. Lots of nuts and honey, and a splash of rose water, make it work.
Valley foodies already know to head west of Central for cheap, no-frills ethnic treats. I'd add the unlikely looking Jazelle's to the list of destinations.
Emma's Deli-World and Winery, 2308 West Northern, Phoenix, 995-2241. Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Like Jazelle's, Emma's Deli-World and Winery suffers from its own form of schizophrenia. On the one hand, it's an attractive place, done up mostly in brick. Maroon linen tablecloths, silk flowers on the tables and a white picket fence separating the dining areas add homey, feel-good touches. Despite the shopping-center location, it seems spiffy, the faintly upscale look accented with background classical music. Along with the decor, $29 bottles of wine housed in a proper wooden rack, Bass Ale on tap and an espresso machine also send chic signals. What kind of food would you expect to see here? Wood-fired pizzas and focaccia sandwiches, salads with Thai peanut dressing or maybe pasta topped with grilled sirloin and Gorgonzola certainly wouldn't seem out of place.
Instead, the menu features hearty, unfussy platters with a slightly Teutonic tilt for between $5 and $7. The dissonance between the setting and the food takes a certain amount of effort to overcome. So does the soup or salad that comes with all dinners. Both the watery beef vegetable and split-pea soups were exceptionally thin on flavor. Anyone looking for wintertime, stick-to-the-bones warmth won't find it in these broths. Don't expect significantly more joy from the coffee-shop iceberg-lettuce greenery, either. Shrimp cocktail and a cheese platter aren't starters that set my heart racing. But the novelty of the curiously spelled "whitefish patee'" piqued my interest. It's actually a mound of tasty smoked whitefish salad. But instead of being served with lettuce, tomato, onions and thick bread, this platter came ringed with saltine crackers. Saltine crackers? Bleh. Luckily, dining quality picks up when you get to the main dishes. Grilled bratwurst shifts the appetite juices into gear, aided by warm sauerkraut and excellent hunks of parsleyed potatoes. At $4.95, this platter gives you your money's worth. So does the Black Forest ham, a thick slice aided by mashed potatoes. Sirloin tips turned out to be a surprise. I expected to wade through the usual fatty chunks of inedible gristle. Instead, I got a substantial portion of easy-to-chew, tasty meat that would satisfy anyone's lust for animal protein. A rich, beefy sauce and a pile of pasta added to its charms. Carnivores should also be pleased with the roast beef, shredded onto a thick piece of grilled sourdough, with sauted mushrooms and onions. The barbecued ribs are not exactly as advertised. The menu describes them as "meaty beef ribs made with our own special barbecue sauce." Hardly. These are actually short ribs, not the long beef bones you might get in a barbecue shack. And they sit in gravy, not barbecue sauce. Still, they're cooked-to-death tender, and quite flavorful. Starchy, right-out-of-the-fryer wedge fries furnish on-target accompaniment. Stuffed jumbo shrimp with Alaskan king crab meat also was a bit of a menu stretch. You'd have had to stitch these six small shrimp together to get one jumbo critter. And I can't be sure exactly how much expensive Alaskan king crab was in the stuffing, because I left my electron microscope at home. Actually, the most eating fun you can have at Emma's is at dessert time. If you're looking to grab some sweets and a cappuccino on the west side, stop in here. Emma's cheesecakes are luscious. Try the marble cheesecake in a graham-cracker crust, or the intense chocolate-raspberry model. The apple-cheese strudel is also good enough to make your head swivel. This woman can bake. Sure, it's depressing for me to think that another year has gone by without a Nobel Prize, a winning lottery ticket or a cure for male pattern baldness. But at least Emma's can take some of the sting out of life's disappointments.
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