The line separating highbrow from lowbrow is a lot less rigid than we think.
Take Shakespeare. In Elizabethan England and 19th-century America, his plays were popular entertainments, the sitcoms and docudramas of the day. The idea that you have to be "cultured" to sit through Othello is a very modern one. Take jazz. What is now hailed as an original American achievement, worthy of scholarly study, was once dismissed as the barbaric bleatings of musically primitive African Americans. Several other vibrant cultural expressions have passed back and forth between the realms of lowbrow amusement and Serious Art. It's hard to believe, but the masses of the past used to wait as breathlessly for a new Puccini opera or Dickens novel as today's masses anticipate a new Seinfeld episode.
Over the past few years, the line dividing highbrow and lowbrow cuisine has also gotten a lot fuzzier. What used to be undeniably plebeian--ethnic fare from peasant-riddled Third World countries--is taken by more and more diners as Serious Food. These days, an imaginative rice-and-beans dish can take a chef a lot further than a velvety b‚chamel sauce.
Mexican food is the kind of ethnic fare that can move effortlessly between highbrow and lowbrow gastronomy. Like Shakespeare, it can be both earthy and refined. Like jazz, it can be hot and cool. Which way is best?
Two new Mexican restaurants furnish a few clues. El Gran Taco thrives because it knows just who its customers are, and dishes out high-quality servings of the food they want. Zona Rosa, meanwhile, is still scratching its head over which brow to aim for.
Zona Rosa is the newest offspring of Big 4 Restaurants, Inc., the local company that has spawned such successful, high-concept dining spots as Oscar Taylor, Steamers and Bssghetti.
In this instance, though, the concept doesn't seem to have been thoroughly thought out. Located in the lobby of the Crown Sterling Suites hotel, Zona Rosa wants, on the one hand, to serve the usual Sonoran snoozers to Midwestern sales reps on Southwestern business trips; on the other hand, it hopes to draw locals with marginally more adventurous fare.
I'm no expert on the dining preferences of on-the-road businesspeople. But I can't imagine Valley dwellers traveling to this hotel restaurant just for enchiladas and burritos. And I can't see them making the trip for specialties that have so little vitality, either. One problem is the look. Zona Rosa is designed like a hotel Mexican restaurant. Despite the warm, red colors, it's a bit cold. Look for lots of clay vessels, a wallful of masks, and bamboo screens on the ceiling. Diners peer out on the hotel pool or lobby. There's no festive air, no sense of intimacy or romance. The enormous booths and tables, however, do seem like perfect spots to unfold spreadsheets.
A basket with a variety of warm, crunchy chips--corn, blue corn and yucca--is good enough to take your mind off business. So is the fresh blue-corn roll. The three dips alongside, though, had almost no flavor, except for the salt in the tomatillo salsa. It's hard, after plowing through the chips, to think anyone would pant to order a plateful of nachos or taquitos as an appetizer. The green-chile-and-cheese-crisp alternative certainly isn't very exciting, either, even for Midwestern hotel guests. It's a crisp flour tortilla, topped with gobs of cheese and a few chile strips. Much more alluring are spinach and mushroom empanadas, four small masa turnovers coated with a luscious poblano chile cream sauce. Why couldn't the rest of the meal have sported the same kind of flair? Instead, a play-it-safe strategy marked the main dishes. Where we lusted for boldness, the kitchen opted for caution. It's true that where there's no risk, there's little chance for failure. So transient hotel diners won't be upset. But no great success can be achieved without some chance-taking. The entrees here simply never grab your lapels and demand your attention. The carne asada … la Tampique¤a is really an upscale version of beef fajitas. And the strips of fragrantly marinated tenderloin are first-rate, juicy and butter-soft. Rice, whole white beans and grilled vegetables also get good marks. I couldn't figure out, though, why a dreary cheese enchilada comes hitched to this platter. But who is going to get lathered up over a Mexican meat, bean and rice plate that costs $16, especially when there are better Valley options? For instance, over at La Hacienda, you can get a veal shank braised with tomatoes, garlic and chiles for the same price.
The chicken-and-shrimp combo was timidly prepared. At first I thought I was in for a treat, since the menu promised to deliver the pair in peanut sauce, one of my culinary weaknesses. But instead of a robust peanut punch, this dish delivered only a shellful of one-dimensional flavor. The only lapels I wanted to grab were the chef's, to beg her to kick this high-potential platter into a higher gear.
The halibut Veracruz should have been tossed back. This mealy fish had clearly seen better days, and not all that recently. Too bad the capers, olives, onions and peppers couldn't have escorted something worthier of their company.
Desserts are more tempting to contemplate than devour. Papaya mango cheesecake has too much sugar and not enough fruity or cheesy highlights. Chocolate flan is a shimmying, oddly flavored confection that grew less appealing with each bite. Too refined for culinary lowbrows and too pallid for highbrow gastronomes, Zona Rosa comes off as comfortably, unthreateningly middlebrow. If that's your taste, then this is your place.
El Gran Taco, 8929 North Central, Phoenix, 997-9290. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.
El Gran Taco, by contrast, is unashamedly lowbrow. A small, Mexican seafood and taco stand surrounded by Sunnyslope auto-body shops, it dispenses with such superfluities as fluent English help, metal cutlery and high-concept decor. Instead, it concentrates on down-home favorites, at prices that keep the place busy with neighborhood Mexican workers eager for a taste of home. There's not much to gaze upon at this small, nine-month-old place, unless you enjoy Spanish-language television. Done up in Mexico's red, white and green colors, El Gran Taco has lined the walls with mirrors, shells and a flag of that country. A spanking-new CD jukebox pounds out south-of-the-border hits at Concorde-level decibels. But while your eyes and ears won't be feasting, your taste buds will be massaged with some excellent home cooking. It will help, though, to speak a bit of Spanish. That's because the English side of the menu doesn't include all the specialties offered on the Spanish side. If your idea of Mexican cuisine includes brains, head, tongue and tripe, consult a dictionary before your visit.
When I asked the affable owner why he didn't translate these delicacies into English, he shrugged and said he "didn't want to scare people away." He shouldn't have to worry. The other items on the menu will keep him knee-deep in customers. Take, for example, the luscious marinated pork. Like everything else, you can order it in a taco, in a torta (a Mexican sandwich) or in a burrito. In any setting, it's absolutely irresistible. A glance behind the counter showed me why. Spinning on a gyro-type rotisserie are layered slabs of meltingly tender, fragrantly spiced meat. Once a slab is stuffed into a burrito and coated with lightly seasoned beans, it's magic. It's been a while since I held anything this good in my hands for $2.50. Other Sonoran staples make up in quality what they lack in novelty. The grilled beef taco features a mound of beef, onions and cilantro on two small corn tortillas. It won't be served on Limoges china, but you'll only have to cough up $1--a more than reasonable trade-off. Grilled chicken, meanwhile, goes well on the fresh Mexican roll used for the torta. Despite its name, El Gran Taco is mostly an outlet for Mexican seafood. As Valley fish fans know, seafood, Mexican or not, is never cheap. But if there's better Mexican seafood in the Valley, it's not cheaper; if it's cheaper, it's not better. The ceviche is packed with enough raw seafood to induce Shamu to jump through a hoop. Even better is a terrific cocktail of shrimp and octopus, swimming in a big, ice-cream-sundae-type glass. What makes this treat so remarkable is the liquid it floats in: a mouth-wateringly seasoned tomato broth tinged with lemon and crowded with onion, cilantro and chunks of cucumber. If you prefer your seafood cooked, don't despair. The shrimp plate delivered five expertly grilled, butterflied crustaceans, accompanied by serviceable rice, beans and salad.
More adventurous souls shouldn't pass up the seven seas stew, an occasional special. It comes in the kind of big bowl that we use at home as a serving vessel for four. Inside are squid, octopus, clams, scallops, shrimp, fish and lots of crab. The broth is scented with a variety of veggies: green pepper, squash, carrots, onions and celery.
And you can wash everything down with an orchata, a nifty, rice-based drink perfumed with vanilla, cinnamon and sugar.
El Gran Taco aims squarely at folks whose tastes for no-frills Mexican food are more developed than their bank accounts. Cheap, nonconcept, lowbrow, nothing-fancy fare? You bet. And I'm ready for seconds.