A Mother Time, a Mother Place

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C-Fu Gourmet, 2051 West Warner, Chandler, 899-3888. Hours: Dim sum, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., seven days a week.

"M" is for the million neuroses she gave me.
"O" means that her act is getting old.
"T" is for time I spend in therapy.
"H" is for her heart not made of gold.
"E" is for those eyes so cold and beady.
"R" means right, and right she has to be.
Put them all together they spell MOTHER.
She's screwed me up since 1963.

Moms come in all shapes and sizes. Beaver Cleaver had a good one. Norman Bates had a bad one. But it doesn't take the imagination of a science-fiction writer to see that 21st-century moms won't be at all like the ones we're familiar with. Test-tube babies carried by surrogate mothers are already here. Human cloning is just around the corner. In the future, you'll not only be able to have a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad, as the song says, you'll be able to have a girl exactly like the girl that married dear old dad. And no doubt researchers somewhere are working on out-of-body wombs, as Aldous Huxley predicted in Brave New World. When it's perfected, this process will put a decisive end to traditional motherhood, as well as cause massive layoffs at Hallmark Cards.

So let's enjoy Mother's Day before it goes the way of Labor Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day, the other celebrations whose original purpose we no longer remember. And what better way to show Mom how much we care than by taking her to brunch on her special day.

If Mom has a gastronomic sense of adventure, consider a dim sum meal at C-Fu Gourmet. The Valley's premier Chinese restaurant rolls out a nonstop array of goodies seven days a week, with an especially elaborate spread on weekends.

Big, cavernous and sparely decorated, C-Fu's dining rooms aren't much of a feast for the eyes. There's a sea of tables lined with foam-green linen. Most of the seats are filled by members of the Valley's Asian community. In the near room, customers can gaze on C-Fu's fish tanks, where dinner is so fresh it's still doing the backstroke. The larger back room features a quartet of big chandeliers and a large panel with Chinese characters, flanked by ceramic dragons.

The great charm of dim sum, of course, is the way it's served. There's no menu. Instead, you watch a carousel of pushcarts laden with Cantonese delights spin around the room. When a cart pulls up to your table, the driver will show you its wares. Point to what you want, then send her on her way and wait for the next wagon in the caravan to pull in. When you've got enough dishes to take care of your appetite for a while, start eating and let the procession wheel by. Ready for more? Just signal the carts to stop once again.

The hardest part about dealing with C-Fu's dim sum merry-go-round is figuring out which carts to stop. If you've got the willpower, you may want to watch the parade for a while to see what choices you have. If you don't have the willpower, however, don't fret: With the possible exception of such authentic native fare as chicken feet in black bean sauce, beef tripe with ginger and deep-fried seaweed rolls, even novices can't go wrong no matter which carts they pull over.

Dumplings and steamed buns are a key element in any dim sum meal, and C-Fu's have a quality that's pretty astonishing for a city that lacks a Chinatown. Pork dumplings, crab dumplings, shrimp dumplings and sublime shark's fin dumplings make a fine first course, a light prelude to more substantial fare. So do the buns filled with chicken and mushroom, barbecued pork and beef.

I'm a big rice-noodle fan, so I always look for the chow fun cart. C-Fu offers two varieties, a regular chow fun, thick and starchy, and a luscious pan-fried version.

If Mom wants to make sure she gets her vitamins, keep an eye out for the Chinese broccoli. The pushcart driver heaps a platter full of steaming greenery, seasoning it with a pungent oyster sauce. Nobody has to be told twice to finish these vegetables.

That's also true for the remarkable stuffed eggplant, possibly the single best dish here. Lovely, flavorful Japanese eggplant is filled with ground shrimp, then moistened with a savory black bean sauce. It's irresistible.

So is another rarely encountered dim sum specialty, sugar cane shrimp. It's fashioned here the same way it is in Vietnamese restaurants: Shrimp paste is rolled around a stick of sugar cane, then deep-fried. First, you eat the shrimp; then you suck on the sugar cane. Mom might get a kick, too, out of the steamed lotus leaf wrapped around a mix of chicken, barbecued pork and sweet, sticky rice.

Urge Mom to give a couple of deep-fried items a chance. Both the taro root turnovers and fried turnip cakes are brilliantly crunchy and very mildly flavored.

Asian desserts don't usually appeal to Western tastes, but three of C-Fu's treats hit the Occidental target. Think of gin doy as Chinese doughnuts, filled with a jamlike bean paste and flecked with sesame seeds. The custardy egg tart tastes a lot better than its name suggests. And the fruit-studded mango pudding is a rich confection that brings brunch to a sweet conclusion.

Other high points of the C-Fu dim sum experience: 1) excellent tea; 2) good service (When the turnip-cake cart inadvertently zoomed by, we flagged the manager. He chased it down, and steered it back to us.); 3) low cost (Dishes check in at three prices: $1.90, $2.95 and $3.75. You should be pretty well stuffed at about 10 bucks per person).

C-Fu Gourmet may not be every Mom's idea of a special-occasion brunch. But it shouldn't take more than one visit here to convince her otherwise.

Minervas, Carefree Inn, 37220 Mule Train Road, Carefree, 488-4310. Sunday brunch: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

After being shuttered for several years, the swanky Carefree Inn reopened last year, looking for a piece of the Valley's high-end tourist market.

Want to stay here? Checking on room rates is like pricing a yacht: If you have to ask how much a night's lodging costs, you probably can't afford it. In season, most rooms go for $200 and up.

The inn's high desert setting is breathtaking, a symphony of cactus, mountains and big sky. The resort itself is also stunning. But the Sunday brunch aims no higher than mediocrity. Sure, it hits the mark--but who's going to be impressed with that target? Mom certainly won't.

The restaurant's design is part of the problem. Minervas is the Carefree Inn's featured dining room. But it looks like a coffee shop, the sort of secondary dining option every resort has for guests seeking a casual meal. There's not even a hint of elegance here: no linen on the tables; no place settings; the music is piped-in light-rock oldies. It looks like management wanted Minervas to have an air of casual, understated sophistication. Well, it's so understated that the place seems charmless.

So is much of the brunch fare. Minervas isn't trying to compete with the lavish, big-bucks spreads at other fancy resorts. The $18.95 tag should indicate to savvy brunchers that there won't be any ice sculpture laden with jumbo shrimp, homemade pates, sushi or grilled filet mignon cooked to order. And I can understand the reasoning behind the decision to forgo extravagance. Folks who want opulence know where they can get it, as long as they're willing to shell out $30 or more per person.

But I can't understand the ho-hum quality of what Minervas does offer. After all, $18.95 is no bargain when what you're eating is so utterly ordinary.

Too much of Minervas' brunch consists of stuff most knowledgeable brunchers usually walk past. Is anyone really interested in the lackluster breads and minipastries, set alongside melon, strawberries and pineapple? Will Mom's heart start racing over a cold-salad display featuring marinated mushrooms, artichokes, tomatoes, greenery, squash, corn relish and pasta? And will someone please explain why there's olive oil on the table? It's not as if there's anything here designed to be dipped into it.

The breakfast station is generally snoozy enough to put you back to sleep. Scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and potatoes in Sterno-fired trays won't inspire Mom to get out of bed. However, tasty country gravy studded with sausage, spooned over biscuits, might. Made-to-order omelets and waffles don't rate high on the excitement scale, but they're competently done.

For the most part, the hot entrees are thoroughly resistible. Don't bother with the tough, thin-sliced beef. You may, however, want to spoon out some of the thick mashed potatoes it shares tray space with. Baked salmon is moist enough, but dull. The undistinguished rosemary-tomato sauce it's moistened with simply doesn't have enough power. Roast pork teamed with a red onion marmalade offers a bit of diversion. Best, though, is the chicken con queso, a surprisingly juicy bird coated with cheese and zipped up with a perky chile corn mix.

Desserts indicate that Minervas isn't interested in joining the culinary big leagues. Why else would it rely on a supplier, instead of having its own in-house bake shop? The choices are also limited to about half a dozen sweets. The chocolate suicide cake and tuxedo pie are actually quite good, rich and sweetly satisfying. But there's a definite lack of pizzazz to what should be a brunch highlight.

Minervas' less-than-dazzling brunch seems to be pitched toward resort guests who don't want to leave the property looking for Sunday sustenance. Mom deserves better.

C-Fu Gourmet:
Taro root turnovers
Shark's fin dumplings
Sugar cane shrimp


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