East Side Story

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Crackers & Co. Cafe, 535 West Iron Avenue, Mesa, 898-1717. Hours: Breakfast and Lunch, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., seven days a week; Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m.

You want affordable housing and good schools? The East Valley's got them. You want low crime rates and conservative values? The East Valley's got them. You want higher-end restaurants with intriguing dishes? The East Valley hasn't got them. For the most part, you have as much chance of finding a Mensa membership card in J.D. Hayworth's wallet as you do finding a quality upscale place to eat in this neck of the county.

For decades, the East Valley's only distinction as a culinary destination point has been as the center of the chain-restaurant universe. Recently, the food scene has blossomed a bit, as spillover immigration from the West Coast began fueling an ethnic-restaurant mini-boom. For the first time, locals encountered Indian, Vietnamese, Korean and Middle Eastern cuisine. (Of course, there's never been a shortage of Mexican fare.)

But restaurants with even moderately ambitious menu aims are rarer in these parts than a "Gay Liberal Democrats for Matt Salmon" political action committee.

I hear that a swanky new place is coming to Gilbert. But in the meantime, are East Valley diners hungry for a good meal doomed to fight westbound Superstition Freeway traffic to Phoenix and Scottsdale? I scouted out a couple of Mesa alternatives, one new, one old, to see if discerning locals could stay closer to home without too much gastronomic sacrifice.

Crackers & Co. has been dishing out breakfast and lunch since 1984. Now, after 14 years, the proprietors believe there's an East Valley clientele out there ready for what they call "creative" dining. A few months ago, they hired a young chef, developed a 1990s menu and started up dinner operations.

The place has a homey, Victorian look--this is how Grandma might have decorated a restaurant. Dark wood shelves are laden with plates, lamps and books. Pretty dried-flower arrangements are everywhere. Tempting desserts beckon from a display case. A heavy mirror and prints of country scenes line the walls. The tables are covered not with linen, but old-fashioned vinyl. However, I'm not sure Grandma would be piping in the '60s-to-'90s light pop, everything from Bette Midler to Celine Dion.

I'm also pretty sure Grandma wouldn't have devised this menu. While the dishes here wouldn't turn any heads in Scottsdale, some of them have more verve than Mesans are used to.

Meals start off promisingly. Make your own bruschetta out of the fresh, European-style bread and nifty, homemade sauce fashioned from olive oil, garlic and tomatoes. It's tempting to fill up--actually, it's almost impossible not to. But, if you order right, you'll soon discover the advantages of delayed gratification.

A couple of appetizers show spunk. The quesadilla is outstanding, a griddled tortilla filled with blackened chicken, jack cheese and spinach. The portabella salad is as good as the salads in the tonier zip codes. It brings together a big grilled mushroom, goat cheese, fresh greens and a sprinkle of pine nuts, all teamed with a warm crepe flecked with chives and sun-dried tomatoes.

Less successful are the filet mignon medallions, two pan-grilled hunks each precariously stacked on a slice of tomato in turn perched on a bed of spinach. The twin towers are topped with Gorgonzola cheese and moistened by a shallot vinaigrette. This isn't an appetizer; it's dinner.

Consider starting off with soup. The creamy seafood broth is close to exquisite, lush with the scent of the sea. A roasted tomato and artichoke soup is lighter, but the flavors are no less intense. In contrast, the wild mushroom soup is too one-dimensional--it could use a splash of cream or sherry.

At entree time, think catch-of-the-day. The kitchen demonstrates real talent with fish, and the price is right, too.

One evening's special featured a gorgeously moist slab of sea bass coated with cumin seeds, paired with Spanish rice and asparagus. Another evening's highlight was pistachio-crusted Idaho trout, which tasted as if it just jumped out of the Snake River. At $10.95, the tag can also make you jump for joy. Meanwhile, you won't find a better-value cioppino than Crackers & Co.'s $9.95 model. This version comes stocked with good-sized shrimp, two handsome sea scallops and chunks of salmon, all served over orzo in an appealingly light seafood broth.

In contrast, chicken is a bit of a snooze. Yes, a dish like chicken roulade, stuffed with spinach, peppers and Gorgonzola, is up-to-date. But neither the poultry nor the overcooked, burnt "risotto" accompaniment made a favorable impression. Most of this platter's pleasure came from the olive-studded ratatouille side. And nondescript blackened chicken, tossed over angel hair, should probably be tossed from the menu--it's a chain-restaurant dish.

But the tomato basil linguini isn't. It's a heaping bowl of pasta festooned with tomato, artichokes and pine nuts, heavily accented with basil and garlic, and creamily embellished with a dollop of Brie.

The house-made desserts look picture-perfect. Unfortunately, that's as close to perfection as they get. A couple are done in by a heavy, heavy hand. That's certainly the case with the achingly dense chocolate blackberry mousse and chocolate cannoli. Both could benefit from better quality chocolate, too. The pastry chef's instincts are right with the white chocolate mango tart, set in a chocolate cup. But the execution is weak--the fruit was still frozen. If you must have your sweets, the marble cheese cake rises to the level of satisfactory.

Can Crackers & Co. keep upmarket East Valley appetites from wandering elsewhere? I'm not sure. But it may give them second thoughts.

American Grill, 1233 South Alma School, Mesa, 844-1918. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.

The menu at the long-running American Grill seems perfectly calibrated to East Valley tastes. The dishes sound contemporary enough, but at heart they're really sturdy, old-fashioned favorites dressed up with a few trendy ornaments. Consider pork tenderloin in a "currant Pinot Noir sauce"; pasta with "late harvest" mushrooms; cheese fritters with "Hatch green chili vinaigrette." What the kitchen is doing, gastronomically speaking, is putting tail fins on a Chevrolet.

Still, this Chevy is running smoothly, generally firing on all cylinders. It's not high-octane fare, but if you're not too demanding, most of it will get you where you want to go, and some of it will get you there in style.

The restaurant's look is so dated it's practically retro-chic. Think dark and clubby, with lots of wood, mounted animal heads, a huge chandelier, vintage posters, etched glass between the booths and a faux-balcony overhead. The only missing touch: ferns. The best touch? Check out the eye-catching, 1930s-style paintings, celebrating the heavily muscled American working class.

Some of the appetizers are worth checking out, too. The Southwestern spring roll could make it in Scottsdale, a crispy, open-faced egg roll filled with chicken, black beans and corn. I couldn't detect much cheese in the cheese fritters, but the zesty green chile sauce kept me from getting too worked up over the omission.

If you'd rather avoid a heap of deep-fried munchies, the Hangtown salad ably fills the appetizer void. It's luscious, a mix of spinach, battered oysters, bacon, candied walnuts and a sprinkle of feta cheese, tossed with a raspberry vinaigrette. Split this two or three ways, and get ready to smile.

However, the American Grill's signature appetizer, N'Awlins BBQ shrimp, doesn't bring nearly as much joy. The spicy (not spicy hot) shrimp seasonings are pleasant enough, but nothing more. And there's nothing at all pleasant about mopping up the sauce with the mushy, stale sourdough bread provided for that purpose.

There's no magic in the stolid main dishes, but several of them are very satisfying. Pork tenderloin is exceptional, a lovely hunk of grilled meat burnished with a currant Pinot Noir sauce that hits every flavor button. Be advised: This dish appeared on a seasonal menu that expired at the end of September. Let's hope the chef has the good sense to make it available year-round.

The Seafood Stew is another deftly crafted seasonal platter whose time shouldn't be allowed to run out. Like the pork, there's nothing cutting-edge about it, but the well-stocked mix of halibut, salmon, shrimp and mussels in a garlicky tomato broth is an uncomplicated delight.

And to my surprise, so was the chicken, as basic a dish as you'll find. The kitchen turns out a moist, tender double breast, touched up with herbs and citrus juices. This bird soars.

Unfortunately, not everything flies. Prime rib has no grievous defects--it's tender and trimmed of fat. But this slab lacks the beefy explosiveness you find in the best models. House-made "pasta pillows"--that's ravioli, folks--sound robust and alluring, goosed up with mushrooms, peas, garlic cream sauce and Parmesan cheese. But these pallid pasta pillows don't have enough oomph. And the sesame-seed-crusted ahi tuna, done up in a soy ginger sauce, is indistinguishable from the ten thousand other sesame-seed-crusted ahi tunas in ginger soy sauce that you've had elsewhere in town.

The a la carte sides are attractively packaged in small iron kettles. Two of them are worth the $2.25 splurge. Sweet potato hash brings cubed, crispy spuds. The parsnip, turnip, carrot medley is offbeat and tasty. But the kettle of potatoes au gratin is a disappointment--no crunch, no discernible cheese.

Desserts are nothing to get excited about. The most inventive element of the Carmel Crater Apple Pie is the spelling of "caramel." Wine-poached pear would have been better if it hadn't been drenched with so much butterscotch sauce.

Big 4 Restaurants, the operators of the American Grill, closed the Scottsdale branch of this restaurant a couple of years ago. Apparently, Scottsdalians didn't feel like making even a short drive to it. Mesans obviously feel differently about their American Grill unit.

The lesson: If you can't swim with the sharks, hang out with the minnows. In the East Valley's small culinary pond, the American Grill can still pass for a big fish.

Crackers & Co. Cafe:
Portabella salad
Cumin-crusted sea bass
White chocolate mango tart

American Grill:
Hangtown salad
Grilled pork tenderloin
Poached pear


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