Restaurant owners can spend thousands of dollars trying to give their places what they think is just the right "feel."
Steak houses often aim for the clubby look: plush booths, dark-wood or brick walls and lots of gilt-framed paintings of horses. Italian dining rooms create a market for empty Chianti bottles, red-and-white-checked tablecloths and tuneful cassettes of mandolin players plucking "Come Back to Sorrento." Mexican restaurants invariably try to cultivate a festive air. Full-skirted waitresses swirl around the tables, gaily colored pi¤atas dangle from the ceiling beams and serapes and sombreros run along the walls.
Not at family-run La Perla Cafe. It looks like it hasn't used the services of a restaurant consultant since 1946, the year this Glendale landmark opened. Everything smacks of a bygone age, but with no false notes of nostalgic kitsch. The walls of the main dining room are adorned with old photo blowups of Xochimilco, Taxco and Chapultepec. The worn booths list with age. The Formica-topped tables could have come straight from the Cleaver household. Even our waitress had been working here for 30 years.
La Perla doesn't pretend to be anything more than it is: a comfortable, neighborhood place that's endured because it serves hearty portions of solid fare at reasonable prices.
The kitchen cooks up chips daily, and a basket comes with three different tomato salsas of varying heat intensity. Don't fill up. Although La Perla offers enchiladas, tacos and tamales, its menu boasts about the subtly spiced Chihuahuan specialties. That was all the encouragement we needed to pass up combination plate number one.
Instead, we went for shrimp ranchero. Somebody in the kitchen must have gotten distracted putting this plate together, because it arrived with an astonishingly generous helping of a dozen firm shrimp. They rested in a puddle of piquant, but not hot, salsa verde, alongside a tasty scoop of guacamole. Serviceable rice and beans assured that no one would wake up hungry for a 2 a.m. snack.
Steak Veracruz will please meat eaters. It featured nicely charred bits of steak, embellished by several shrimp. But the unrivaled winner was clearly the luscious chicken mole. It's a half chicken bathed in a sweet-tart mole sauce that I could have devoured by the tablespoon.
All of these dishes are accompanied by a fragrant cup of cilantro-filled alb¢ndigas soup and some of the best homemade flour tortillas I've had in the Valley. If all you're used to are the packaged tortillas in the supermarket's Mexican-food section, these steaming beauties should open your eyes. No one I know goes to a Mexican restaurant primed for dessert. Experience has taught me that anticipating pleasure from Mexican sweets makes as much sense as expecting a squealing-car-chase scene from an Ingmar Bergman film. La Perla's flan proved my point--it's nothing special. But I found myself falling for the crunchy fried ice cream in spite of my prejudices.
La Perla's current owners, the children of the founders, don't take their success for granted. To celebrate the original opening date, every April 15, they roll back prices to 1946 levels. The most expensive item on the menu? A $1 combination plate. La Perla still delivers good value for inflation-scarred 1993 dollars. Unpretentious and relaxed, it's a pleasant spot to kick back, fill up and knock off a cold Mexican brew. Tia Maria's Coyote Cantina, 3202 East Greenway Road, Phoenix, 404-0244. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
In contrast to La Perla Cafe's neighborhood atmosphere, six-month-old Tia Maria's aims for a beach-cantina mood. A tropical-looking, mauve-and-blue color scheme, island-print tablecloths and beach umbrellas decoratively sticking out from the walls supply the principal visual effects. The gastronomic effects are pretty catchy, too. The salsa accompanying the basket of chips caught everyone's attention: It's got a noncommercial touch, thick with chunks of tomato, onion and cilantro.
Perhaps low expectations for this kind of Mexican fare skewed my judgment, but everything here tasted far better than I could have hoped.
Take the carnitas, for example. A huge helping of exceptionally lean, tender pork comes delightfully tinged with garlic and oranges. Moist and full of flavor, this dish suggests that Tia Maria's serves no swine before its time.
Carne asada, another house especialidad, also supplies a week's worth of animal protein. It's a grilled slab of rib-eye steak with plenty of beefy heft. And at $9.99, it's the priciest plate on the menu.
These platters are laden with ordinary rice and refried beans. But bean fans should definitely splurge on the cup of poblano beans. Whole pinto beans zipped up with bacon, scallions, tomato and chiles swim in a lip-smacking, fragrant broth.
The purely gringo options proved that familiarity doesn't have to breed contempt. The beef taco, served in a crispy tortilla, features lots of charred machaca beef and cheese. There's no dreadful "fast food" touch here.
Nor with the ample beef burrito. Tia Maria's fries its bready flour tortilla, after cramming it with mild, easy-to-chew beef and peppers. What a pleasure to munch on a burrito that takes its flavor as seriously as its weight. The enchiladas Canc£n are actually tasty enough to awaken you to the fact that "cheap" and "filling" don't have to be the only Mexican-food virtues. Tangy chicken strips saut‚ed in a perky, three-chile sauce are rolled into corn tortillas, topped with a bit of sour cream, cheese and salsa--a nice change of pace from the usual cheese-glopped messes that pass for enchiladas.
While Tia Maria's doesn't seem to cut corners on the food, the cutlery is another story. These must be the world's cheapest utensils. After all, how often do you hear a spoon groan under the weight of beans? And you don't need the telekinetic powers of Uri Geller to bend these forks--gravity is the only force required.
Maybe Tia Maria's can turn into a venerable neighborhood spot like La Perla. Apart from the silverware, it seems to have all the tools. Los Cabos, 5111 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 266-3941. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.
I was licking my chops, anticipating a visit to recently opened Los Cabos. Armed with a menu that promised tempting fare like pork tenderloin with mango salsa, sausage-studded tortilla lasagna blended with Mexican cheeses, and fresh red snapper baked in parchment paper with papaya lime salsa, I had the evening meal mapped out with military thoroughness.
But, unexpectedly, I encountered totally different terrain. I felt like General Schwarzkopf showing up for the Iraqi campaign with plans for an invasion of Sri Lanka.
So bid "adios" to the Oaxacan chicken on cilantro pesto with tricolored pepper aioli. Murmur "vaya con Dios" to Monterrey crab cakes and scallop ceviche appetizers.
Say "hello" to combination plates of tacos, burros, tamales and enchiladas.
Los Cabos is an exceptionally pretty place. There's lots of decorative tile work, bleached oak and flower stencils on the walls. The televisions in our dining area were, mercifully, turned off. And outside is a pleasant, misted patio.
But the food is relentlessly ordinary.
The nachos had an appealing layer of beans, but for some reason, the kitchen stinted on the cheese. Why? About a dime's worth of the stretchy stuff is all that separates the skinflint and spendthrift categories.
The problem with the main dishes, though, is not parsimony--it's taste. Beef fajitas offer some mighty-old-looking meat, a few colorful peppers and way too much salt. And the cast-iron skillet arrived without the usual reassuring sizzle.
Just as even experienced climbers will think twice before tackling the sheer, granite cliffs of Yosemite's El Capitan, even trained bellies will pause before Los Cabos' chicken fundido. It's a big, heavy, fried-chicken burro covered with lots of creamy cheese. The only possible reason to finish it? Because it's there.
Combo plate number one features chile relleno. But the breaded chile is buried under so much cheese, we could have called in Phelps Dodge to mine it. And the beef taco and enchilada alongside couldn't be distinguished from any of the 10,000 other versions of these staples served around town.
Actually, the most distinctive dish we had turned out to be menudo. A weekend special, it sported a rich, down-home taste that the other fare so conspicuously lacked. The south-of-the-border desserts don't give off sparks, either. If you must massage your sweet tooth, go for the berry chimichanga--it combines lots of cream, berries and chocolate. The sopaipillas, though, are much too bready and heavy. They're a bit difficult to face at the end of a belt-loosening Mexican meal. I don't know what scared Los Cabos away from its intriguing Mexican-specialty menu. It couldn't have been the competition--the number of places serving the kind of dishes it jettisoned can be counted on one hand.
But if Los Cabos wants to stand out in the combination-plate market, it's going to have to ratchet up the quality a few notches.