Cafe Reviews

EATING MCDOWELLA COOK'S TOUR OF PHOENIX'S FUNKIEST RESTAURANT ROW

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At 44th Street and McDowell, we'll debark at the Embassy Suites Hotel to pay a visit to Slickers Seafood Restaurant [3]. I'm not too wild about Slickers, though I suppose in a seafood emergency it would do. There's a blue-and-white nautical theme at work, but it's not enough to counteract the sterile hotel feel of the place. Portions are meager, vegetables cold and overcooked and service erratic the day of our visit. You know, I take it back: If you're in the grips of the fish jones--go anywhere else first, even (gulp) Red Lobster. Just west of 44th Street on the north side of McDowell is La Flora [4], 4310 East McDowell. La Flora serves plain old-fashioned Sonoran-style Mexican food. My companion tells me it's the way all Mexican restaurants looked around here twenty years ago. I like the wall mural of a Mexican seaside scene complete with factory. (Talk about realism!) La Flora's food is decent, but not spectacular. I like the salsa, guacamole and bottled sarsaparilla. Most impressive of all is the strawberry burrito we have for dessert!

Between 44th and 40th Streets, McDowell has an almost intimate residential feel. Shaggy trees, trailer parks and lack of sidewalks make the area seem more tropical than urban. We could be in Florida or Mexico.

As we cross 40th Street, look to the south. In addition to the new freeway, you'll notice a large fenced area inhabited by stark low-slung bungalows. In the early- to mid-1960s, this lot was the "future site" of a branch of Brigham Young University. Most recently the Good Samaritan Vocational Rehabilitation Center occupied the site. Now, it's anybody's guess. No one I talked to in the city or state bureaucracies could identify what's going on there.

Just past 36th Street and across the street from the Trinity TV 21 Studios (KPAZ) sits Viva Maria [5], 3510 East McDowell. This modest Mexican take-out stand opens at 11 a.m., and by 11:30 it's packed. The solid Sonoran grub at sensible prices is why. There's not a thing on the menu more than $4--including generous combination plates. Yeah, the food's a little heavy, but if you're like me, sometimes nothing else will do. Picnic tables in back provide seating if you're not in a hurry to go somewhere.

For the next four blocks, McDowell turns grease monkey and wholesale. Auto parts and supply stores, car rental agencies and restaurant supply companies populate the street. Nightclubs and show bars begin to crop up as well.

Just east of 32nd Street, a residential strip mall shimmers like an oasis before us. Newly painted, the Fairmont Pharmacy Plaza houses two restaurants on our tour. The first, Eight Immortals [6], 3275 East McDowell, serves (big surprise) Chinese food.

When a restaurant's major design feature is the particle board covering its windows and walls, how good can the food be? Since I've eaten at Eight Immortals, I can tell you: not very.Stay away.

Taqueria Ramona [7], 3237 East McDowell, a new fast-order Mexican restaurant, is neat, clean and pink inside. It feels like a chain enterprise, but the help swears it isn't. The menu emphasizes seafood cocktails and daring ingredients like tongue, head, brains and tripe, served in a variety of ways. I recommend the birria taco, but not the shrimp cocktail. Prices are low (tacos are 94 cents), but portions are tiny. Ecologically minded diners will be dismayed that everything is served on separate Styrofoam plates. I was.

Past 32nd Street, near the Grand Canal, is Red Devil Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria [8], 3102 East McDowell. Red Devil's been around since 1960--and boy, is it popular, especially with families. Notice how crowded the parking lot is? It's always like that. You can get fancier stuff here, but most people stick with pizza or pasta. The red sauce is decent: not too sweet, and prices are reasonable.

Storage and furniture warehouses, restaurant equipment and auto parts stores, a defunct flagstone U.S. Post Office and the Creighton School line McDowell between Red Devil and our next stop, Gina's Pizza [9], 2925 East McDowell. Gina's, located in an old strip mall, is a real winner. Plummy sweet homemade tomato sauce and chewy pizza dough made with distilled water make this New York-style (thin crust) pizza distinctive. Homemade tamales and desserts like chocolate brownies, New York cheesecake and amaretto cheesecake are also available.

Gina, a beautiful red-haired woman, runs the place with her husband. When I ask her why her flier says "Gino's Pizza," she confesses the sign outside is a mistake. "The sign painter," she says, shrugging. "He felt it should be Gina's because it's my name." So do I.

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Penelope Corcoran