Cafe Reviews

Meanwhile, Back At The Ranchero

It's a Monday night and the parking lot is jammed. This would be a noteworthy sight anywhere, but here it's positively amazing. For this has always been one of those doomed dining spots avoided like a curse.

In its last incarnation, for example, it featured Native American cuisine and called itself the Ho-gan. I remember dining there one evening when our group was one of only three parties in the restaurant on a tourist-season Friday night. Our consensus was that it might last for six months. Six weeks turned out to be closer to the truth.

So on this particular Monday evening, I am buying none of it until I walk into the restaurant. Sure enough, it's full with the happy hum and bustle of people actually enjoying themselves. Out of circulation for a half year, reopened for only a few months, suddenly there's a restaurant here with its site firmly set on success.

Its new name is Fiesta's, and it serves Sonoran-Mexican cuisine by way of Colorado. While the traditions of critical pedantry here demand a few pithy paragraphs of Az-Mex and Col-Mex cuisine comparison, I'm not sure that there's all that much of a difference. It's simply that the young couple who own this place, Brenda and Richard Lucio, have labored for nearly two decades in Colorado's Armadillo restaurants, owned by Richard's dad, and there is an obvious measure of professional competency that easily translates across geographical (and generational) boundaries. Still, there is at least one dish at Fiesta's I've not encountered in any other local Mexican restaurant, and it is a worth-the-trip winner. While some local restaurants do offer sopapillas, little puffed pillows of sweet yeast-raised dough most often served with honey and butter as a chips substitute or as a dessert, Fiesta's has enlarged the sopapilla and elevated it to entree status. Crammed with shredded beef or chicken and smothered with green chile and melted cheese, these outsize chunky and chewy dough pockets are really superb.

Incidentally, I'm not sure if it's a Colorado thing or a Fiesta's thing, but green chile is lavishly ladled or mixed into a large proportion of the entrees in this restaurant. With its big tender pieces of pork, its significant strips of chile and its generous additions of chopped onion and tomato, this is a particularly deep-flavored and well-balanced version of green chile. But read the menu carefully if you wish to avoid the disappointment of too much flavor redundancy in your order. Some items without the green chile that are worth a try are: cheese and onion enchiladas (surprisingly light, as are all the cheese-oriented dishes in this restaurant); pollo classico (a delicious dish composed of thick pieces of grilled marinated chicken and sauteed vegetables rolled in a flour tortilla); and enchilada torta (a tortilla stack heavily laced with red chile, less interesting than the green but with a good subtle burn in the background). An attractive vegetarian option is a chili relleno ordered without the usual green chile and with a substitute side of ranchero sauce. A friend praises the ratio of Anaheim chile to batter coating and cheese in this dish, proclaiming the Fiesta's version "more vegetably" than others.

A taste of the ranchero sauce reveals it to be far more interestingly and aggressively seasoned than the restaurant's salsa, which comes off like cold stewed tomatoes flavored with a bit of cilantro. In my opinion, the salsa is the only dish that entirely fails at Fiesta's, although this is pretty good news for the folks just down the road at Ricardo's. If there is any other major shortcoming in the very fairly priced Fiesta's fare, it's really that the abundant use of green chile and shredded lettuce makes all the plate presentations look pretty much the same.

Visual monotony in no way extends to the dining room itself which, for a place that was originally built as a pancake house, is quite pretty. Attractive southwestern-pattern carpeting, booths covered in vibrant print material, restrained decorative use of ristras and Native American art, and good general cleanliness, all come together to produce an environment that's stylish and comfortable, not flashy or schlocky. Waitress costumes of black and white polka-dot peasant blouses and billowy lavender skirts are also unique and appealing.

Speaking of service, that which we receive is excellent. Our ASU-student waiter greets us with the announcement that Fiesta's serves fifteen different varieties of margaritas and, when we jokingly ask him to name them, he rattles off the list without a hitch. He subsequently stays on top of the effort all evening, making good suggestions and never being absent from the table for very long.

It's also very gratifying to see the attractive young couple who own the place so diligently working the dining room. Clearly, they cannot have anticipated such a big crowd on a Monday, but they are both on duty and raking in the raves as a result. It's an example of foundation building at its best. While I'm still up on my sopapilla box, let me also tell you what's going down at Paradise Pinata del Pueblo. The rascals who run this restaurant are not content to fill dough pockets with shredded chicken or plain old air. They go right for the gut via the deep-fat fryer and ice cream.

Most Mexican deep-fried ice cream, in case you've never indulged, is simply super-chilled ice cream rolled in a corn-flake coating and seared in deep fat. Paradise Pinata's insertion of a sopapilla layer between the ice cream and the crumbs explodes the pleasure dynamic of this popular postre into a new space/taste dimension. With the addition of strawberries and whipped cream (Sopa de Fresa) or chocolate topping and nuts (Crepas de Cajeta), this becomes a confectionery conclusion toward which you must direct your meal, and I'm telling you this right here at the outset so you can't say you haven't been warned.

To keep proper form you probably should have something to eat before dessert, and there are a number of dishes at Paradise Pinata worthy of consideration. There's an entire quesadilla (folded soft cheese "crisps") category, led by a marvelous machacadilla. This generous combination of shredded chicken (or carne machaca), chopped vegetables, shredded lettuce, guacamole and sour cream, cradled in cheesy goo and anointed with a splash of fresh cilantro-and green onion-rich salsa, is a total triumph.

Another fine and fairly unique item that can be overlooked because it is buried so far back in the menu is the spinach enchilada with green sauce. The filling for this corn tortilla treat is a dreamy mixture of creamed spinach and mushrooms with a nice peppery accent. Along with the spicy green sauce, the enchilada comes topped with bit of rich spinach con queso dip and a generous sprinkling of chopped green onions; a veritable feast for eyes and palate. Unfortunately when it comes to culinary consistency, the Paradise Pinata kitchen takes its customers on a fairly wild ride. For example, considering that this restaurant is an obvious shrine of upscale gringo gourmandism, it's startling that the place does such a stale job with fajitas. Foregoing the absolutely quality-essential sizzling platter presentation, Paradise Pinata's pre-plated version is as mushy as food held stewing in its own juices has every right to be.

On one recent occasion, the guacamole on a cheese crisp is so loaded down with pepper that it seems a prank. Conversely, a seafood enchilada seems entirely without a flavor profile at all. Either of these might reflect the momentary carelessness of an off night in the kitchen, but my rule of thumb is that whenever the cash register is operating properly, you can reasonably demand the same from the cook.

What does remain consistent at Paradise Pinata del Pueblo, as long as someone gets around to cleaning the bathrooms, is the atmospheric appeal of the place. The notion of a stylized Mexican market-cantina located smack dab in the middle of one of Scottsdale's most chic shopping plazas should at least appeal to everyone's sense of humor. Even though the overall effect comes off a bit like parody, the place is spacious, colorful and comfortable, qualities that are not quite as sinful as some Mexican food "purists" might have one believe.

Ultimately, though, you could take me to Paradise Pinata, blindfold me, spin me around a couple of times and give me a stick to point to my selection. As long as the menu is turned to the back page, where they list those sundae sopapillas, you won't hear a peep of complaint out of me.

I scream only in the absence of ice cream.