Whenever Rod, my auto mechanic, sees the old jalopy roll in, he can confidently extend his annual South Seas cruise an extra week. During this holiday time, I get a particularly warm, generous glow, helping Rod maintain a lifestyle to which I'd like to become accustomed. Recently, flush with the season's good cheer and the prospect of presenting a bill for six hours' labor (not including parts) on my leaky, sputtering cash guzzler, he offered two pieces of advice. "Get rid of that clunker," he charitably suggested, a thought that these days crosses my mind more frequently than a Sharon Stone fantasy.
"And if you want some great Mexican food, drive up to Cave Creek and check out El Encanto." He glanced over at my wounded chariot. "Better take someone else's car." The drive-and-dine option seemed to me more palatable than shopping for a new set of wheels. The ride through the still-undeveloped desert at dusk, even in an American-made lemon, is inspirational. Winter visitors especially will marvel at the trip. And once they get to El Encanto, the food won't disappoint them, either. Inside, the place is furnished in comfortingly familiar Mexican-restaurant style. The small tourist shop off the main room suggests that El Encanto attracts more free-spending vacationers than homesick Sonorans. Assorted south-of-the-border weavings, paintings and knickknacks line the bright, blue-and-white walls. Live plants in painted flowerpots adorn the tile-topped tables. Soothing guitar music underscores the peaceful effect. So does the flotilla of ducks outside in El Encanto's pond. If you're the Jane Goodall type, you can watch them close-up from outdoor patio tables warmed with heaters. Our level of interest was amply satisfied from an indoor window table overlooking the waterfowl action. Instead of wildlife, we focused our attention on the menu choices. El Encanto naturally offers the staples of gringo cuisine--tamales, burros and enchiladas. But we opted for the slightly more adventurous fare that can't be found in a Milwaukee taco parlor.
So we passed up nachos in favor of ceviche, a sprightly mix of raw fish marinated in lime juice and freshened with onions, tomato and cilantro. El Encanto's plentiful, first-rate version comes in a large sundae glass, with a surprising number of tender, tasty clams.
Folks who prefer their fish cooked in more traditional fashion should enjoy the briny sopa de mariscos. This fresh-tasting soup packs lots of clams, oysters and tiny shrimp, swimming in a celery-stocked tomato broth. Chip fans don't have to forgo their pleasures. They can make do with the no-charge house basket and thick salsa. Or they can spring for $4.25 and order a belly-filling spinach con queso dip, with a bit of a jalape¤o bite. Main dishes show some spunk. Pescado Veracruz brings a reasonable-size slab of sea bass, simmered in an aromatic, tomato-and-pepper sauce. This platter sports none of the heat associated with Mexican food. And it's a flavorful alternative to the usual fried gringo food, too, one that mildly adventurous Midwestern guests should appreciate. The fundido is a seafood option that provides the familiar fried gringo crunch. It combines bits of celery, shrimp, whitefish and, sadly, ersatz "krab," all rolled and fried in a big flour tortilla. What makes this plate levitate is the luscious cream-cheese topping bathing the ingredients. This dish probably violates nine out of ten New Year's resolutions. The best thing here is the pollo in mole sauce. Unassertive, sliced chicken breast is the perfect vehicle for the outstanding mole, fashioned from a blend of three chiles, dark chocolate and spices. The brash taste is different, exotic and mysterious, and possibly not to everyone's liking. But remember, one of the original impulses fueling the American ethnic restaurant explosion was the desire for food that didn't taste like it first went through an extensive deflavorization process. This plate sure didn't. Fajitas, on the other hand, are a purely domesticated Tex-Mex creation. El Encanto's shrimp version features four firm, meaty crustaceans and a jalape¤o-loaded pico de gallo. Otherwise, though, it hardly justified a risky desert journey in a suspect vehicle. Desserts offer one memorable star turn, and a couple of lesser acts. Flan is serviceable, an appropriately sweet, caramel-topped, creamy vanilla custard. The sopaipillas, though, should be booed off the stage. They reminded me of pita bread; they're too thick and clearly not fresh out of the fryer. The clear winner is the chocolate chimi--thick, milk-chocolate pudding crammed inside a flour tortilla, which is then rolled and fried. A scoop of chocolate-chip-mint ice cream and whipped cream gild this lily. A trip to El Encanto should satisfy Americans' two primal yearnings at the same time: rolling down the open road and downing unthreatening Mexican fare. Just keep your car and appetite tuned. Los Olivos, 7328 East Second Street, Scottsdale, 946-2256. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Remember the line in Steve Martin's L.A. Story? Showing an English visitor the sights, he stops in front of an unexceptional-looking house. "And this place," he proudly announces, "is more than 20 years old!" If he ever gets around to filming Scottsdale Story, Martin will surely pull up in front of Los Olivos, one of the Valley's oldest restaurants. It's way more than 20 years old. Run by the same family down through several generations, the original adobe dining area has seen plenty of additions. You can check them out through photos and clippings on the restaurant's bulletin board. We got seated in the original room, a dark, wood-beamed space enlivened by roving mariachis. The ledges around the wall hold dozens of gaily colored, hand-painted teacups. But when we tried to inspect one of them up close, we found it tightly glued to the shelf. I wonder if the owners had to worry about patrons lifting the decor 50 years ago. The only lifting that interested us was hauling the outstanding chips from their basket. Why doesn't every Mexican place have chips like these--absolutely fresh, warm and crisp? And they come with two worthy house sauces to swish them through, a hot pico de gallo and an even hotter red chile salsa. The least appealing part of Los Olivos' menu is the appetizer list. It features an unimaginative assortment of nachos and cheese crisps, none of which seemed remotely tempting as we crunched our way through the chip basket and downed frozen margaritas. On a chilly winter evening, we thought the soups promised a more warming start. The alb¢ndigas sports a hearty, beefy broth, bobbing with lots of little, homemade-tasting meatballs. The tortilla soup is fashioned from the same liquid and satisfyingly filled with cheese, onions and tortilla strips. Like El Encanto, Los Olivos offers several entrees that won't show up in a Mexican fast-food stand. Camarones al mojo de ajo brings six big shrimp, grilled in the shell, accompanied by an artery-clogging bowl of garlic butter. These wonderful creatures will remind you just how good shrimp can be, and make the $13.25 tag a little easier to handle. Once you get over the fact that the principal flavor in the pollo asado is mustard, it's actually pretty good. You get a decent, grilled half-breast of chicken, swabbed with lots of perky mustard, with a zesty tomato, onion and chile salsa on the side providing a Mexican touch. There's excellent short-grain Mexican rice, too. But for the life of me, I can't figure out why the camarones and pollo come with garlic toast, and not fresh-cooked tortillas. Spanish steak is a somewhat questionable main-dish option. It's not Spanish, and it's not steak. It's a grilled, ground-sirloin patty, smothered in a mild, tomato-and-pepper sauce. For some winter visitors, I guess, it's probably as close as they want to come to Mexican food. Actually, on the whole, I preferred the more familiar Sonoran-style dishes here. They're quite enjoyable, and priced to sell. The fragrant green corn tamale, for example, tastes as good as it smells, no small feat. And it's enhanced by a subdued, creamy, green chile sauce. The mild chile relleno comes straight out of the gringo-Mexican-food recipe book, but it's also excellent--bubbly, eggy, cheesy and smothered with the same luscious green sauce. And the cheese-and-mushroom enchilada is a wonderful specimen, thickly stuffed, with right-out-of-the-oven credentials. Desserts are just about good enough to keep diners from wandering through Scottsdale looking for better. The smooth flan is moistened with a sharp caramel sauce with a fine, burnt edge. The sopaipillas are appropriately fresh and puffy, but not much of a bargain: two small squares for $2.95. In a town where five years' residency makes you an old-timer, and ten years makes you a native, Los Olivos may seem like a prehistoric relic. But it's obviously still a long way from extinction.