Think of the three most popular types of ethnic restaurants in town. They're from countries that support a tremendous variety of distinctive regional cuisines. And these regional variations are so well-known, they're even available in our small corner of the American desert.
Want Italian food? You can find places in the Valley that specialize in veal and risotto dishes from the north, seafood platters from the coast or mounds of pasta from the south.
Hungry for Mexican food? You can opt for Sonora's staples of burro, enchilada and taco, Mexico City's grilled meats or mariscos from the waters of the gulf or the Pacific Ocean.
Craving something Chinese? Choose fiery Szechuan twice-cooked pork, whole steamed fish from Canton or noodle soups from Taiwan.
Now, think about the USA. Sure, we have lots of regional specialties--New England chowders, Southern fried chicken, Kansas City barbecue, Chesapeake Bay crab cakes, Texas chili. But no one can seriously argue that any of these forms a part of some larger gastronomy. How could they, when you'd run through all their culinary combinations and permutations in about two days?
The question of regional American cuisine popped into my mind a few weeks ago, while we were hosting a French exchange student. To him, American food seemed completely undifferentiated--coast-to-coast chicken nuggets, hamburgers and pizza. Not an unreasonable deduction, I'd say.
But I wanted to convince him otherwise. So I took him to a couple of spots for local samples of what might pass for regional American cooking. Iowa Cafe's Midwestern fare and the Cajun dishes at Etouffee's Cafe would show him, I hoped, that our country had a little more culinary depth than the Colonel's 11 secret herbs and spices and McDonald's secret sauce.
Iowa's state motto is "Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain." But judging from the kind of food dished out at Iowa Cafe, I'd encourage legislators to enact a more descriptive, up-to-date motto. My suggestion: "If Something Nutritious Gets on Your Plate, We Apologize."
Even the word "Iowa" itself connotes the state's love affair with fat, cholesterol and sodium. I understand it's a Sioux term that translates as "Land of Big Thighs." Looking around at the cafe's regulars, I could tell that most of them hadn't been working off the calories consumed here squeezing the Thighmaster.
Run for the last decade or so by Iowa expatriates, the Iowa Cafe is a homey, charming shrine to the Hawkeye State. Directional signs note it's 1,428 miles from Mesa to Boone. A map of Iowa is stuck full of pushpins, indicating the hometowns of the cafe's customers. Mementos of the two leading universities, Iowa and Iowa State, line the walls. So do testimonials from satisfied clientele, including University of Iowa football coach Hayden Fry.
Iowa Cafe dishes out Midwestern farm fare, with a vengeance. You won't see any accent marks or foreign words on this menu. Nothing comes moistened in a tomato coulis or seasoned with an ancho chile cream sauce. You will see lots of meat and potatoes.
The six appetizers all have one thing in common, and it isn't an endorsement by the American Heart Association. Routinely palatable zucchini, mushrooms, cauliflower, onion rings, cheese balls and cheese sticks all come deep-fat fried.
Dinners include soup or salad. The broth made from white beans and ham seemed to me a little light on flavor, but a dash of pepper helped perk it up. And don't bother searching for arugula or radicchio in the salad--as you might expect, the greenery is 100 percent iceberg lettuce. But you do get some good homemade corn bread to soak up the ranch dressing.
The main dishes, most in the $6 to $7 range, come right from the farm kitchen. They're designed to fuel you up, not provide epicurean experiences.
Liver adorned with onions is your basic slab, intended strictly for fans of strong-flavored organ meat. The rib eye steak isn't the world's tenderest piece of beef, but it furnishes an appropriate dose of animal protein. The hamburger steak turned out to be just a regular bunless burger, thin and a bit rubbery.
You're best off with pork, which should be no surprise, since Iowa raises more hogs than any other state. The pork chop plate brings two tender, meaty chops. The hot pork sandwich, a Monday dinner special served on white bread (what else?) and buried in gravy, is probably the tastiest option.
You won't find polenta, rice or pasta among the side dishes. You get your basic choice of spuds: baked potato, institutional fries or unexceptional mashed potatoes. There's not a vegetable in sight. There are, however, incredibly tasty homemade dinner rolls, about a thousand times better than the mushy store-bought models other restaurants use.
Desserts, which feature fresh-baked pies, are simply scrumptious, and worth a trek out to the wilds of Mesa. The apple pie is thick and sweet, with a flaky, buttery crust. Pecan pie is stick-to-the-ribs satisfying. And you'll need about three cups of coffee to wash down the rich, intense chocolate peanut butter pie. (When I've fully recovered, I plan to return some morning for a breakfast centered on homemade pecan rolls, cinnamon rolls and jelly doughnuts.)
Iowa Cafe's recipes aren't likely to inspire a culinary movement celebrating the sophisticated flavors of regional Midwestern cooking. But they might inspire you to drop by and fill up on cheap, unpretentious dishes delivered with an open Midwestern friendliness.
Etouffee's Cafe, 10720 West Indian School, Phoenix, 877-0056. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
If you're looking for authentic regional American cuisine, you can't get any more genuine than Cajun food. The ancestors of today's Cajuns left their homes in southern France in the 1600s and migrated to Canada. After the British drove the French out 160 years later, they moved to another French outpost in the New World, Louisiana. There the refugees developed a unique cuisine, sublimely fashioned from local seafood and game, produce, spices and rice. At its best, Cajun food, full of deep and hard-hitting flavors, is an absolute knockout. At the year-old Etouffee's Cafe, however, it doesn't do much more than land a few punches.
Located on the fringes of the west Valley (although only about 15 minutes from downtown), Etouffee's Cafe occupies a small shopping center storefront. It sports a few Louisiana gewgaws: a hanging paper crawfish, a Mardi Gras mask and a framed poster of hot sauces from the homeland. But one Louisiana staple is missing--beer. It's an almost essential accompaniment to spicy Cajun food, especially if you're chowing down in summertime Phoenix. Let's hope Etouffee's Cafe considers a beer license, so diners won't have to look with thirsty lips at the tantalizing beer signs hanging about the room.
Along with suds, Etouffee's Cafe also deprives you of the opportunity to order munchies. There are no appetizers anywhere on the menu--no oyster bisque, shrimp r‚moulade, crab salad or even wings. Instead, you immediately plunge into the main dishes, a dozen choices, most of which are under $10.
Shrimp stuffed with crabmeat is one of the better choices: four substantial crustaceans teamed with a tasty filling and then deep fried. The prospect of devouring "home cut fries" along with the shrimp also excited my interest. But if somebody actually peeled and cut these dull spuds back in the kitchen (which I doubt), he was wasting his time.
Crawfish ‚touff‚e is a signature Cajun platter. I can't complain about the portion size--the plate is loaded with crawfish--or the bargain $8.95 tag, which is at least $5 cheaper than other models in town. But the dish seemed a bit light on flavor, a shortcoming that afflicted several other entrees.
For example, jambalaya is supposed to be a vigorous, highly seasoned affair. But the version here is too tame and tentative for my tastes. Maybe things would have been different if all the promised ingredients showed up: The menu led me to expect shrimp, ham and sausage, but I found only the sausage.
Nor did barbecue ribs reach the flavor heights. The half-rack serving is reasonably meaty and gives off a slight barbecue tingle. But these aren't the kind of bones that make you want to devote your every waking moment to gnawing. The side of red beans and rice also could have sported a more peppery kick. The Louisiana gumbo is a more satisfying alternative. This time, all the ingredients--seafood, sausage, onions, peppers--turned up, mixed in a soupy roux and served over rice. They create Etouffee's Cafe's most interesting combination of scents and flavors.
No one will mistake a Cajun meal for lean cuisine, so ordering dessert is a significant caloric indulgence. But the homemade pecan pie and tart, creamy lemon supreme pie are worth the calorie plunge. The cheesecake, however, isn't.
As a gastronomic destination, Etouffee's Cafe can't compete with the Valley's two other Cajun restaurants, Baby Kay's Cajun Kitchen and Justin's Ragin' Cajun. Nor does it give off their let-the-good-times-roll vibes. Its niche: low-priced, low-intensity Cajun staples.