Wake Up Call

No Shirt, No Service

On a brutally icy afternoon last February, my husband and I wandered the streets of Manhattan's Tribeca, looking for warmth and something light to eat a couple of hours before a dinner date.

"I know where we can get martinis and munchies," I shouted over the roar of traffic. If you've ever watched Saturday Night Live's opening credits, you know the place. It's the shot of the restaurant with the Statue of Liberty crown on top. "There's this great tapas bar about two blocks from here: Teddy's International."

"Nah," said my puzzled husband. "I don't want to go to a place like that."

Fifteen frozen minutes and many cafes later, we sat in a dark, drafty and deserted Irish pub gnawing on fried potato skins that could've been carved from the bar. "Damn it, we could have been eating some really fine tapas over at Teddy's," I huffed.

"Tapas? Did you say tapas?" asked my husband. "Sorry, I thought you said topless bar."

We've enjoyed tapas wherever we can find them ever since.

If you haven't been to Spain, you may not know about tapas. They are the fast food of that country: hot and cold dishes already prepared to sell in small amounts to customers in a hurry or to people with leisure to sample a few dishes. The hurriers likely will stand at a tall table with a foot rung, down a few gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlic) and head out. The leisure crowd may sit around a table laden with small plates of delicately fried squid, cold roast lamb or mushrooms sautéed in sherry.

Spaniards take a large and long midday dinner and often a nap before going back to work until early evening. They sup late -- sometimes by 9 p.m. but more often around midnight. Tapas often fill the bill for people on their way to or from work or social events, as well as for late-night dining.

While restaurants in Phoenix don't have tapas bars, several offer extensive tapas menus that'll make you feel like you're on the Costa del Sol. But you'll pretty much have to dispense with the sophisticated Mediterranean suppertime and go with what to a Spaniard would be Jerry Seinfeld's parents' feeding time -- by 9 p.m. You could get lucky and find the kitchens open a little later on the weekends, provided the patrons keep coming.

Two of the three most likely to be serving on the late side are just a couple of blocks apart along Camelback Road. Hard-to-find Altos, 5029 North 44th Street, is tucked away in a shopping center on the northeast corner of 44th Street and Camelback and with very little signage to guide you. Proving how good the food is, crowds of regulars fill the spot nightly. It's almost always pleasant enough to sit outdoors, but indoors, you'll hear live guitarists and sometimes whole tables of folks bursting into song. Despite the full dinner menu, a party of four or more can make double orders of several tapas serve nicely.

At an average of $10 a plate, these are some of the costliest tapas in the Valley. Even so, a foursome can walk away with a tab well under $150, including drinks or wine. I always check the tapa del dia, but more often than not, I suggest favorites. The juicy turkey in black Oaxacan sauce falls apart under a chocolate mole perfectly balanced by the tang of roasted tomato and red pepper purée. Likewise, lomo de cerdo pibil is a luscious dish of charbroiled pork infused with achiote, oranges and garlic. Garlic and white wine make the almond shrimp a good choice, but it's the drunken lamb chops bathed in a sauce of chile negro, beer, spices and garlic that sends me to nirvana. No matter how sated you are, always make room for the chocolate crème brûlée, with its little kick of espresso for the drive home.

The Cuban-inspired Havana Cafe, 4225 East Camelback, offers a more extensive tapas selection and borrows from both Spain and Latin America. Some are especially notable, and because they are at almost half the prices charged by Altos, I usually order accompaniments to the tapas. Take the black bean soup for starters. This vegetarian version lacks the smokiness of a good ham bone in the stock, but has so much creamy flavor I don't mind. I can't do without an order of crispy yuca frita and Havana's tartly sweet ensalada de sevilla, which includes lettuce, oranges, onion and avocado in a classic citrus vinaigrette. For the tapas, the shrimp pancakes and either the salt cod or black bean fritters are tops, as are the empanaditas. But two potato dishes here are the best. Tortilla española, the Spanish version of the French classic potatoes Anna, is served cold. The Peruvian causa azulada is made of warm mashed purple potatoes, layered with carrots and Swiss chard, and sprinkled with hard-cooked egg, walnuts and anchovies. For this dish alone, Havana is always my first suggestion to vegetarian visitors.

My dancer friends enjoy going to Pepin after a show at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. The restaurant, at 7363 Scottsdale Mall, is just steps away from the arts center. Owner Rafael Soto named Pepin after his own nickname. Soto creates my favorite shrimp in garlic and lemon, and a divine dish of crab and black rice croquettes with lobster sauce.

One night as I was finishing the cordero asado, which is roast lamb marinated with sun-dried tomatoes, a man asked me to dance. He thrust his left thigh between both of mine, and shoved my right leg into a ballet turnout.

"What are you doing?" I cried with some alarm.

"Cumbia," he grinned.

In between hot cumbias, you can pop a few of Pepin's energizing croquettes before heading back to a dance floor that throbs until 1 a.m.

Just keep your shirt on. It's a tapas bar.

Merilyn Jackson doesn't frequent "gentlemen's clubs," but she has danced at a tapas joint.