Cafe Reviews

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

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Country Boys [21], 101 East McDowell, fails to be as charming or as good a coffee shop as Brookshire's. It seems, well, kind of dirty inside. The day we visit a particularly pesky fly keeps dive-bombing our table. Furthermore, our waitress just doesn't seem to care as much as our Brookshire's waitress did. Unless you're desperately hungry or out of gas, I'd save my appetite for somewhere else.

The Encanto-Palmcroft architecture really starts to kick in west of Central. We see more bungalows and more residential buildings with a sense of history and style. In fact, there's a very cute cottage for lease at 149 West McDowell which would make a charming little House of Tricks-style restaurant.

At Fifth Avenue, we brake for cocktails. Seafood cocktails, of course. Mariscos Chihuahua [22], located at 502 West McDowell, serves the best in town. Belly up to the bar in this tiny blue-and-white restaurant and place your order for octopus, shrimp, abalone, squid or even sea snail. You won't be disappointed. Cucumbers, tomatoes, onion and lots of fresh lime juice make this mariscos truly marvelous.

The continuing vitality of the Encanto-Palmcroft neighborhood has ensured survival for local merchants. As we approach Seventh Avenue, we'll see another row of storefronts with the small-town feel of the Miracle Mile. Unlike that area of East McDowell, however, My Florist, Hales Beauty Salon and Encanto Liquors continue to exist because of community support.

As does Long Wong's [23], 701 West McDowell, but why, I don't know. Not only have I been subjected to surly and rude service here, but the chicken wings I purchase are the worst I've ever attempted to eat--anywhere in the country, let alone Phoenix. Overpowering floral air freshener (gas station rest-room variety) and a customer smoking at the counter didn't improve my overall impression. Wave good-by--we're not stopping.

From Seventh to 15th Avenues, the Encanto Spanish-tiled bungalow architecture persists. Then, as we get closer to the Arizona State Fairgrounds, the Veterans' Memorial Coliseum and Six Points--the intersection of Grand Avenue, 19th Avenue and McDowell--the neighborhood declines into "quick-rent" apartments. By 19th Avenue, we've entered a whole new world--a stark area criss-crossed with railroad tracks and populated by warehouses and girlie bars.

Overpasses for I-10 and I-17 swoop above us and to the south at 23rd Avenue. We could be in Any Major City, USA. This area of McDowell takes on the look of a moonscape--or maybe a scene from Repo Man. We'll pass many truck rental places, auto detail shops, tire lots, body shops and "cocktail lounges" before we come to another restaurant on McDowell.

Bring your Spanish dictionary along if you stop at Playa del Sol [24], 3519 West McDowell. Unlike the staff at San Carlos Bay, which speaks some English, the waitresses here speak no English. It's very, very authentic. Like San Carlos Bay, Playa Del Sol specializes in seafood (mariscos). Ordering a fried fish here will net you an entire fish--eyeballs, teeth and all. Camarones en limon natural means shrimp so natural they're still raw. I've had some good meals here and some scary ones. If you're brave or facile with the language, by all means give it a try. They serve a mean seafood cocktail.

West McDowell starts to become more residential after 35th Avenue, but a few strip malls catering to local businesses still crop up. Rada's Mexican Foods [25], 3628 West McDowell, is in one such commercial strip. Rada's falls in the same category as La Flora: a family restaurant serving decent Sonoran-style Mexican food. I like the homemade chips and salsa as well as the eclectic jukebox. During one meal alone we hear Julio Iglesias, Percy Sledge, Sam and Dave, Gloria Estefan and even some country tunes.

After 37th Avenue, McDowell loses much of its character. Large, anonymous, two- and three-story apartment complexes crowd the street one after another. In terms of restaurants, there are none I'd recommend driving a long distance to visit. Quite simply, the restaurants this far west are serving the community--which seems to value quantity and convenience over quality.

Hong Kong Express [26] and Mixteca Mexican Food [27], both housed in the Mega Foods Plaza at 43rd Avenue and McDowell, are two such restaurants. Primarily take-out shops, both serve food better suited to satisfying hunger than pleasing the palate. I swear the Super Burrito we order at Mixteca weighs close to two pounds! If you like big food, go for it.

I like the soft noodle vegetable chow mein next-door at Hong Kong Express, but the Kung Pao Chicken reminds me of Chun King. Still, I'd recommend Hong Kong Express over the other far west McDowell Chinese restaurants. Between 43rd and 51st Avenues, McDowell's southern side is undeveloped. The entrance to a future industrial park sits waiting for the industry to materialize. On the northern side of the street, single-family homes are shielded by gray cement-block walls, patched with paint to cover graffiti.

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Penelope Corcoran