Cafe Reviews

Ahwatukee Trot

Caffe Boa, 5063 East Elliot, Ahwatukee, 893-3331. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Why do people confuse money with class? Ted Kennedy and Fife Symington, for instance, are both dripping with wealth, acknowledged or not. But over the years, their behavior has been both legally questionable and morally dubious. Or stroll through Beverly Hills and check out the oxygen bars, the garish mansions and the chauffeured Land Rovers. The money is here, all right. But in the entire 90210 zip code, there's not enough class to fill a thimble.

The verdict isn't in yet on Ahwatukee, a fast-growing, well-off Valley enclave nestled near South Mountain. Its prosperous residents can take pride in beautiful homes, picture-postcard views and reassuring suburban security. But when it comes to eating out, Ahwatukee is, without putting too fine a point on it, the pits.

I don't think I've ever seen such a wide disparity between a neighborhood's affluence and the quality of its restaurants. It would take a skilled sociologist to figure out why acres of classless chain restaurants, whose bland fare is aimed straight at the McMasses, have sprung up here, where people can afford to eat better. (To be fair, the same chain phenomenon is also occurring in the tony northeast Valley. However, folks there have lots of nonchain options.)

Sensing the opportunity to muscle in on the chains, two independent restaurants have seized the moment to establish an Ahwatukee beachhead. The thinking at Caffe Boa and Esteban is simple: Give sophisticated locals who have discretionary dining-out dollars an alternative to chains, and they will eagerly come. It's a winning strategy, as far as it goes. Getting people to come certainly won't be difficult. The real question is: After a first visit, can the restaurants get people to come back?

Pasta-themed Caffe Boa should have no problem attracting repeat neighborhood business. This is its second branch--there's also a small Mill Avenue operation--and the proprietors' experience clearly has helped in Ahwatukee. For the most part, Caffe Boa has hit the ground running.

The featureless strip-mall location doesn't have anything going for it, but the cafe itself has some character. There's a pleasant, partially covered patio with a soothing, gurgling fountain. Inside, gaze at the colorful art depicting bistro scenes. And if the piped-in music isn't to your taste, just wait a couple of minutes. In the space of half an hour, it can go from rap to jazz to "Autumn in New York."

Caffe Boa wisely steers clear of the deep-fried appetizer staples that chain restaurants rely on. Instead of onion rings, potato skins and chicken wings, this kitchen offers the likes of snails bathed in a garlicky white-wine sauce, burnished with mushrooms, roasted red peppers and olives. Salsiccia contadina is marvelous, sliced, fennel-accented sausages in a full-bodied tomato sauce zipped up with olives, mushrooms and basil. There's plenty of flavor here to go around.

Crostini are a lighter way to edge into dinner. You get four small, toasted baguette slices piled high with marinated veggies, mushrooms and capers. They're a tasty nibble.

If the urge for pre-entree greenery strikes, however, I'd advise you to suppress it. The house salad, a mass of red-leaf lettuce, two small tomato wedges and a couple of pepper strips, is way overpriced at five bucks. For this kind of dough, I expect to see some livelier greens and some combination of mushrooms, artichokes, cucumbers, olives or cheese. Too bad, too, because I really liked the homemade mango-herb dressing. Don't expect to do cartwheels over the bread, either, a lackluster loaf with no discernible charm.

Fortunately, the main dishes help you get over salad disappointment in a hurry. The menu generally features a half-dozen or so specials that seem to show up with some regularity. One evening's escolar luau turned into halibut luau when the kitchen ran out of escolar. But once the substitute got grilled and bathed in a highly aromatic sauce scented with lemongrass, cilantro, ginger, garlic, clam juice and vanilla bean, and then heaped atop a mound of noodles, most folks wouldn't have cared about the switch. The platter also comes with glazed pineapple and banana, an odd touch. At the time, I couldn't figure out whether this dish was weird or wonderful. Looking back, I believe I was right on both counts: It's weirdly wonderful.

Ciao won ton is another special that's creatively bizarre. Won ton wrappers are stuffed with Gorgonzola cheese and sweet potatoes, a very untraditional pairing, then coated with a creamy roasted garlic sauce. What can I say? It works.

Less successful is the pizzazz pork, which sounds a lot better than it tastes: "Grilled pork tenderloin that's been marinated in a beer, soy and honey mixture, served with a Thai sweet-and-hot plum sauce over rice noodles." The problems were many, starting with low-quality pork that hadn't been cooked all the way through. The Thai sauce was also pretty much of a snooze, especially when matched against the sauces in the halibut luau and ciao won ton.

Caffe Boa's regular menu leans heavily toward pasta, most with a vegetarian bent. These dishes are done right, and, with nothing more than $9.95, they're priced right, too. Agnolotti are pasta pouches filled with mushrooms and herbs, smoothed with a tomato cream sauce. The taste is subtle, the texture is rich and the overall effect is quite pleasing. Traditionalists will find a worthy pasta putanesca, rigatoni freshened by a zingy, spicy tomato sauce zipped up with capers, olives and mushrooms. If you prefer your pasta a little more offbeat, consider the rancho ravioli. Ancho chile pasta is filled with pinto beans, jalapenos and cheese, and coated with an inventive, attention-getting salsa verde fashioned from tomatillos, cilantro, onions and lime juice.

The kitchen doesn't do anything to make you stick around for dessert. The supplier-provided sweets--a thin tiramisu, a less-than-intense chocolate hazelnut cake--end the meal with a whimper, not a bang.

Despite the underwhelming finish, Caffe Boa seems poised to flourish, and help Ahwatukee unshackle its chains.

Esteban, 3626 East Ray, Ahwatukee, 706-7997. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday, 4 to 10 p.m.

The sign over Esteban, broadcaster/restaurateur Steve Stone's latest culinary venture, says "Fine Mexican Dining." That's a real stretch. Esteban is to fine Mexican dining what Sheriff Joe's Tent City is to fine resort living.

This place is strictly from gringoville. That's not necessarily a fatal misstep--there's a place for fresh-tasting, well-crafted gringo cuisine. Unfortunately, Esteban isn't it. The food here is not only bad, it's embarrassingly bad. I don't know what it would take for me to come here ever again. At a minimum, I'd say a press release announcing "Under New Management," or a subpoena.

A former video store, Esteban is divided into three dining spaces. The bar area is the liveliest, and the many televisions can help keep your mind off the food. There's a sterile back room, lined with Southwestern paintings for sale, as well as a patio.

Like the Cubs, whose games Stone broadcasts, Esteban finds it a real struggle to achieve even mediocrity. The complimentary chips and two salsas couldn't quite get there. One of the salsas is supposed to be chunky; the other is supposed to be hot. I knew it was going to be a long evening when I couldn't tell the difference. A warm Dos Equis brewski didn't seem promising, either. Still, who could have imagined that these would be the high points of my Esteban fine-Mexican-dining experience?

Esteban's dishes could fill several lowlight reels. A lonely few achieve edibility, like the albondigas soup. The broth is flavorless, but it is packed with half a dozen meatballs. At the time, I wished the soup had come with a few veggies and chiles. But in retrospect, I might as well have wished for world peace and the brotherhood of man. Both may well occur before Esteban gets its kitchen act together. The cooks also couldn't completely ruin the cheese crisp or the nachos. If you consider the ineptitude that followed, however, the pair represents a major culinary triumph.

Of the seven entrees I sampled, only one didn't make me want to flee screaming into the Ahwatukee night. That was the pork tenderloin, dubbed one of the "Especialidades de la Casa." It's a modest slab of pork, lined with an extremely modest mole sauce. The rice, beans and tortillas that tag along don't exert themselves much, either.

Recalling the rest of Esteban's dinner fare is a fearful experience I'd rather suppress. But maybe if I talk about it, the pain will subside and the healing process can begin.

The enchiladas del oceano were excruciating, two past-their-prime corn tortillas filled with seafood glop that was still cold. Apparently, this kitchen can't even get the hang of a microwave. The charbroiled swordfish was overcooked rubber, with all the juicy appeal of a spare tire. The fajitas didn't come in a sizzling iron skillet. They're just some dull chunks of chicken surrounded by some exceptionally dull fixings. The beef tamale/chicken enchilada combo plate would send a fasting hermit even deeper into the hills. Shamu, I'm sure, would throw back the seafood tacos. And why does Esteban have a dish called Acapulco shrimp? Maybe because after diners take one bite of these mealy crustaceans, coated with an achingly sweet honey-butter glaze, they'll feel like diving off a cliff.

As you might expect after this cavalcade of losers, dessert lived down to our expectations. The flan was sweet and heavy, lacking proper texture. The so-called sopaipillas were actually churros. But this is useless semantic quibbling, because whether you called them sopaipillas or churros, they were still stale.

Esteban does for Mexican cuisine what Three Mile Island did for nuclear power: It makes us want to rethink the whole premise. Ahwatukeeans are advised to keep their distance.

Caffe Boa:
Salsiccia contadina
Rigatoni putanesca
Rancho ravioli
Escolar luau

Albondigas soup (bowl)
Tamale/enchilada combo
Acapulco shrimp

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Howard Seftel