Cafe Reviews

Ahwatukee Trot

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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.

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Howard Seftel