Bien There; Done That

Via DeLosantos, 9120 North Central, Phoenix, 997-6239. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

There are few experiences in life more satisfying than having your prejudices confirmed.

If you're an Arizona Republican candidate for office, it's learning that your Democratic opponent keeps a poster of Ho Chi Minh on his bedroom wall and a well-thumbed copy of the Communist Manifesto on his nightstand.

If you're a plain-looking brunette edged out in a job search, it's discovering that the shapely blonde who got the position couldn't spell "dog" if you spotted her the "d" and the "o."

If you're a manic-depressive, it's reading a note in your Chinese fortune cookie that says, "Prepare yourself for some good news and some bad news."

And if you're a restaurant critic, it's trying out a pair of Mexican restaurants, one a venerable, friendly, family-run spot, the other a sterile, new-to-town link in a corporate chain, and finding that the family restaurant serves quality south-of-the-border fare, while the newcomer dishes out the kind of God-awful glop that encourages you to make a run from the border.

It's no secret that the staples of most local Mexican-restaurant meals--chips, tortillas, cheese, chicken, rice, beef, beans, red sauce--permit only a limited number of culinary permutations. That's why, if you eat this combo-plate stuff over an extended period of time, it's hard to maintain much excitement for Mexican food. Ask yourself: How many nights in a row would you want to face tacos, burros and enchiladas?

Actually, if they came from Via DeLosantos, I'd probably be able to face these usual suspects indefinitely. This kitchen manages to take the "Snore" out of "Sonoran" Mexican food.

Via DeLosantos (DeLosantos is the family name) is a festive-looking place, perhaps overly festive. Too much contemplation of the scenery may lead to blurry vision. Strings of chile lights, beer pennants and a Kahlœa pinata hang across the room, while almost every square inch of wall is covered by multicolored serapes, baskets, sombreros, woven fabric, terra-cotta masks, bullfight posters and velvet paintings. If you close your eyes, you can concentrate on the nonstop, piped-in Mexican music.

Make sure you open them again when the server brings over fresh chips and two kinds of salsa--a sprightly pico de gallo and a snout-clearing hot sauce. Accompanied by one of the restaurant's potent 99-cent frozen margaritas, they get the meal off to a festive start. (How do you make a 99-cent margarita? There are only two ways: You can make it watery, or make it small. Via DeLosantos opts for small, but these babies still pack a sting.)

If you'd rather pay for your chips, the bubbling deluxe nachos are worth paying for. They feature plenty of cheese, shredded beef, beans, green onions and tomatoes. The $3.85 half-order, which easily satisfies three appetites, is a consumer-friendly touch.

But don't fill up too quickly. The wonderful, budget-priced Sonoran dishes will make you remember why you liked this sort of food in the first place.

The hefty burros require two hands to wield, but no effort to chow down. The red chicken model is one of the better local versions: hunks of moist, white-meat fowl coated with a subtle, mildly spicy red chile sauce. It's the kind of burro where, after your first bite, you involuntarily let out an "Mmmm." The burro fashioned from egg, chorizo and potatoes is just as satisfying.

From the a la carte list, I put together my own lip-smacking combo platter. First, I went for the Sonora enchilada--a crispy, homemade corn tortilla topped with cheese and a piquant red sauce. Next, I hooked a fish taco, filled with an ample portion of flaky, grilled fish. (Most fish tacos in this town don't have enough fish in them to rouse my summer-dormant cat.) Then I nabbed the green corn tamale moistened with green sauce, which tasted like it had just come from a Mexican village.

Grilled pork tacos are a standout: lean, juicy strips of meat combined with the usual taco fixings. The machaca platter is also expertly done: tender, shredded beef scrambled with egg and chile. Roll some up in a tortilla, pour on the hot sauce, and enjoy. The chile relleno, eggy, bready and cheesy, is tasty enough, but not quite in the same league.

Fajitas aren't served Tex-Mex style--no hissing iron skillet, no tray full of condiments. They come on a regular plate, but if our shrimp calabacita fajitas were any indication, you won't miss the sizzle. Fragrantly marinated shrimp are grilled with zucchini, corn, onions, peppers and tomatoes, while first-rate rice and beans add to the pleasure. At $8.50, this is the most expensive dish here, and no one is likely to feel cheated.

Desserts aren't fancy, but both the homemade flan and deep-fried apple burrito with ice cream are effective ways to finish up.

Cheap, fresh and tasty--that's how I like my Mexican food. At Via DeLosantos, you'll hit the trifecta.

Don Pablo's, 1935 East Camelback, Phoenix, 265-3336. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Restaurant reviews hailing the Tex-Mex fare at several of Don Pablo's 48 nationwide branches line the walls of this chain's new, high-profile location on Camelback Road.

This one won't join them.
Uneasiness kicked in even before I encountered the food. While waiting to be seated, I heard a customer telling the manager that he wanted "a green chile burro to go." Then the guy sprinted to the bar to wait.

Perplexed, the manager turned to a nearby worker: "What the hell is a green chile burro?" he asked the equally befuddled employee.

I piped up and informed him that here in Arizona, what folks elsewhere call a burrito, we call a burro. He received the knowledge gratefully. But identifying a burro for the operator of a Mexican restaurant before I eat leaves me with the same kind of queasy feeling I'd get if I had to explain to my dentist that a molar is a back tooth before he starts drilling.

Most of the effort at Don Pablo's seems to have gone into the decor. It's got that unmistakable Disneyesque, chain-restaurant, ersatz-Mexican-plaza look. The idea is you're supposed to be dining in some sort of village square. The dining area features the false front of a hotel, complete with balcony and shuttered window. Patchy paint on brick and aged flowerpots are pseudo-weather-beaten touches that were probably designed to impress gringos in Minnesota, Virginia and Indiana, where Don Pablo's has other links in the corporate chain. (The parent company also operates 187 Applebee's.) The velvet paintings of bullfighters, Buddy Holly on the music system and oddly inappropriate 1950s-style dinette tables and chairs also suggest that Don Pablo's may be longer on concept than substance.

The food proves it. I refuse to believe this fare has been imported from the Texas-Mexico frontier. More likely, it was deported.

Try not to fall asleep when the server brings over the chips and salsa. They're not really chips as we know them; they're more like tortilla crackers. The salsa, meanwhile, is soupy, with all the zesty bite you'd find in a slice of Wonder bread.

Acapulco Nachos must be so named because they make you want to dive off a cliff. There's nothing remotely compelling about this sodden, cheese-draped platter. Don't expect better pre-entree luck with the tortilla soup, a thin broth buoying up a tablespoon of chicken, a zillion tortilla strips and none of the "garden-fresh vegetables" promised by the menu.

The main dishes range from snoozy to scary. Three Amigos features a trio of enchiladas: a cheese enchilada with red sauce; a beef enchilada with chile sauce; and a chicken enchilada with sour-cream sauce. The problem? I couldn't tell one of these tasteless specimens from the other.

Fajitas will keep you yawning. The bacon-wrapped shrimp are serviceable enough, but the beef is tough. And they're both accompanied by some horrendous veggies--the woody carrots were so old they were practically petrified.

"Petrified" also comes to mind when I think about the Pescado Tampico. That's because I was truly frightened by the overcooked, off-tasting slab of tuna that appeared before me. I took two bites to fulfill my professional obligations, which was one more than I would have dared take under different conditions. The side dish of charro beans, seasoned with nothing more than good intentions, didn't do much to improve my disposition.

Despite my agony, there's no sense in prolonging yours. So just let me quickly run through the rest of Don Pablo's fare that I had the misfortune to sample. The carne asada was done in by inferior meat, tough and gristly, and the "papas fritas" that came with it were frozen-bag-quality French fries. The soft tacos, two flour tortillas rolled with who knows what, had all the charm of fast food. The "oro" in the Chimi de Oro turned out to be melted cheese gunk that could have better adorned a Midwestern potluck tuna casserole. And the chicken in the chicken burrito must have been dropped in with tweezers.

In the unlikely event you have the courage to stick it out through dessert, the apple pie on a hot skillet, drowned in butter sauce and teamed with ice cream, offers some sweet recompense. Sopaipillas don't.

Don Pablo's menu states that "Our first rule is that the food must taste good." Judging from my experience here, I'd say Don Pablo's second rule is, "Rules are made to be broken."

Via DeLosantos:
Sonora enchilada
Red chicken burro
Machaca platter

Don Pablo's:
Acapulco Nachos (small)
Pescado Tampico
Carne asada
Apple pie

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