Cafe Reviews

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

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A cute laundry bearing images of Smurfs is our next landmark. We're approaching the intersection of 24th and McDowell. West of 26th Street the true flavor of McDowell begins to emerge. Here and there we see an occasional Spanish-styled bungalow--shades of things to come.

The Outrageous Sandwich and Tamale Shop [10], 2417 East McDowell, is almost hidden in an odd storefront strip east of 24th Street. Parking is tricky at this busy intersection: there's a driveway that leads to spaces at the back of the stores. It's a family-run place, well-meaning, but I'm not impressed with the product. The bland tamales are bested by Gina's; a smoked turkey sandwich tastes like it has been treated with formaldehyde.

We put mediocrity behind us as we approach prime eating territory on McDowell. The restaurants are coming thick and fast. Just past 24th Street, Adrian's Real Mexican Food Restaurant [11], occupies the site inhabited ten years ago by the beloved Demetra's Greek Restaurant. Adrian's is a funky little restaurant with outside grille work. Inside, the decor reminds me of someone's kitchen. The food offerings are similar to Taqueria Ramona: seafood cocktails, tongue, tripe, birria--as well as fish soups.

Notice the mix of people here? Cowboys with hats and silver belt buckles, hipsters dressed in black and purple, car mechanics with tooled leather belts. I'm not wild about Adrian's mariscos--my shrimp cocktail is mealy and drowning in V-8 juice. But the birria here is good, although portions seemed on the meager side. A few doors down is Rosita's Place [12], 2310 East McDowell. After Adrian's, Rosita's interior seems tame with its plain vinyl booths. This restaurant was much celebrated when it was in South Phoenix, but most people, including me, think it's been inconsistent since its move uptown to the former Asia House location. An interesting jukebox and good hot sauce don't compensate for hit-or-miss food and chips that'll cost you. The Squaw Peak Parkway looms ahead as we pull out of Rosita's Place. We have one more stop to make before we glide under the wide overpass: no, not the Phoenix Wedding Chapel or the Psychic Reader--Stanley's Polish Deli [13], 2201 East McDowell.

Stanley's, under new management, is a tiny place. A vast array of hanging sausages and smoked meats forms an impressive backdrop for cases holding delicacies like Bulgarian feta and homemade piroghi. Out front, the walls are packed with imported grocery items such as noodles, pudding and borscht mixes, pickles and paprika. There's even a rack in the corner with Polish and Yugoslavian newspapers and magazines for sale.

Stanley's has only four tables, so many people order pizza or sandwiches to go. Oddly, only two subs feature the homemade Polish sausage, which shouldn't be missed. Crackly fresh, smoky and nicely salted, the casing pops in your mouth when you bite into it. If you're craving a little bit of Eastern Europe, a visit to Stanley's will satisfy you.

After passing under the freeway, our first stop west of the Squaw Peak Parkway is San Carlos Bay Seafood Restaurant [14], 1901 East McDowell. This small white cottage has been a residence, attorney's office and real estate brokerage in the last four decades. Now it houses the best Mexican seafood restaurant in the city: authentic, delicious and a trifle exotic--you'll feel transported to the Sea of Cortez while dining here. (Regular Cafe readers will remember I raved about San Carlos in March.) Cheese lovers should be sure to try anything "culichi-style," and if you like it spicy, order the marinated fish fillet. The seafood cocktails and stews are excellent.

Leaving San Carlos, we enter the historic "Miracle Mile" section of McDowell. Notice how the storefronts give the impression of a village center? For several years in the mid-1950s, when Phoenix was not the megalopolis it is now, the Miracle Mile functioned as a major shopping center for the city. People came from all over to shop in this prestigious and highly touted commercial district.

When Park Central Mall opened in 1957, the vitality of the Miracle Mile began to drain away. The final blow occurred when the residential area south of McDowell was purchased to make way for the Papago Freeway. Without a residential neighborhood to support it, the shopping area's legs were cut off. Slowly, the adult bookstores and topless bars arrived.

To counteract McDowell's downslide, local merchants had banded together in 1979 to form the East McDowell Civic Association. Former association president Shelby Austin, a real estate broker, claims he led the original Mr. Brookshire to the corner of 16th Street and McDowell when it was the site of Helms Service Station.

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Penelope Corcoran