Cafe Reviews

Gorge West, Young Man

Jacka's Back Alley Grille, 5739 West Glendale Avenue, Glendale, 274-1998. Hours: Dinner, Thursday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m.

Build them, and I will come.
That's what I've been telling disgruntled west-siders, who continually urge me to unearth fine-dining restaurants in their corner of town. The problem? Until recently, it would have made as much sense scouring the avenues looking for the Lost Dutchman mine.

When I arrived in the Valley six years ago, the west side was where you headed for affordable housing, stress-free driving and a low-cost ethnic meal. You had plenty of dining options: Vietnamese, Thai, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Korean and Greek fare. Happily, those options (and more) are still available today.

During the '90s, though, explosive growth has dramatically altered west-side demographics. Many northwest Valley newcomers fit a restaurant owner's dream-customer profile--sophisticated, affluent and hungry. And these folks would prefer not to drive to Scottsdale to find a make-an-evening-of-it, Saturday-night spot.

But are there enough of them yet to fill up a restaurant like the ambitious Jacka's in Glendale, with its $15 pasta platters, $23 rack of lamb and $30 cioppino? Meanwhile, across the street, the budget-priced Mexican/Italian/American fare at Bitz-ee Mama's continues to be a neighborhood draw. Changing demographics don't concern this restaurant's proprietors. Their biggest worry is finding room for all the regulars who want to sit in the smoking section.

There's nothing cutting-edge about Jacka's, except the daring concept of housing it on the west side. The Victorian look is designed to put you immediately at ease. Gewgaws are everywhere: kachinas, ceramic figures, ornamental platters. A lighted breakfront houses chinaware. Flowered wallpaper borders the dark green walls, while the tables are double-clothed with pink and burgundy linen. Lights are dimmed. A guitarist or pianist plays tunes that won't upset anyone's appetite, and the melodies occasionally inspire couples to twirl around the small dance floor.

The menu is no more adventurous than the decor or the music. Jacka's success isn't going to depend on trendiness or culinary novelty. It's going to depend on quality. And judging from my visits, the signs are propitious.

Most of the appetizers are strictly dullsville--fried calamari, shrimp cocktail, chicken strips, potato skins. But that's no calamity, because they're also entirely unnecessary. The generously portioned dinners, which come with both soup and salad, should satisfy a lumberjack. Whatever adjective you use to describe your state at the conclusion of the meal, it won't be "hungry."

However, if you insist on a starter, splurge on the well-fashioned oysters Rockefeller. You get seven tasty bivalve mollusks, flavored with a drop of Sambuca and cooked with a small mountain of spinach, bacon and cheese.

Then, loosen your belt for the waves of food to come. Soups go down easy. One evening it was a pleasant vegetable cheese with dill-flavored croutons; another evening brought a hearty tomato-vegetable broth. A big plate of fresh greens also works to fill in the appetite cracks. So will the focaccia, topped with cheese and olives. It's not homemade, but who cares, as long as it's warm and fresh?

The main dishes confirmed my premonition. You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of places serving rack of lamb west of I-17. Jacka's version possesses a gnaw-to-the-bone quality. You get eight small chops, juicy and tender, that are lightly seasoned, but not overpowered, with a bit of garlic, pepper and thyme.

Even better, I thought, was roast duck, an exceptionally moist, meaty bird glazed with a just-right orange sauce that had an appealing citrusy tang. Someone here knows how to cook duck.

One evening's chicken special showed the cook's talent extended to other forms of poultry. We got a whole chicken breast, zestily lined with capacolla, smoked cheese and sausage. In a town full of snoozy chicken dishes, it's always nice to find one that can keep me from nodding off. Sides of pasta (choose the robust marinara sauce over the watery Alfredo) and mixed vegetables completed these entree platters.

My enthusiasm for ordering the trout dimmed considerably when the waiter told me it was frozen. There's too much good fresh fish in the Valley for me to spend 15 bucks on a thawed-out slab.

But I shelled out twice that sum for what the menu calls "The Feast." It's an enormous bowl of first-rate cioppino, stocked with a variety of aquatic life--oysters, clams, cockles, mussels, scallops, shrimp, calamari and hunks of snapper. It's served over pasta, in a winy tomato broth, and you get enough seafood to fill up Shamu.

In fact, the cioppino is really enough for two. But if you share it, management will tack on a five-dollar charge. Why not serve less, charge less, and bring the price into line with the rest of the menu?

Like the appetizers, desserts are superfluous. You're unlikely to be famished enough to be tempted by them. And if you are, these unexceptional, supplier-provided sweets will probably make you wish you showed a little more restraint.

Along with most of the fare, I also salute Jacka's dining philosophy: The table is yours for the evening. That means you can enjoy a leisurely paced meal, with plenty of time for conversation and digestion. I had to smile, though, at the sweetly officious service. "And how are we enjoying our dinner?" asked the eager-to-please waiter at every opportunity. For a few anxious seconds, I feared he was going to pull up a chair and join us.

Will Jacka's fine-dining concept thrive in Glendale? I hope so. For the moment, it's still a west-side story without an ending.

Bitz-ee Mama's Restaurant, 7023 North 58th Avenue, Glendale, 931-0562. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Breakfast and Lunch, Monday, 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.

A longtime neighborhood fixture, Bitz-ee Mama's inspires the kind of customer and employee loyalty that restaurant owners dream about. As we entered the restaurant, a Wisconsin couple on their way out let us know that we were making a smart dining choice: "The Mexican food's the best in town," they reported without any prompting. When we asked our waitress what she recommended, she thought a moment before replying, "Anything Italian." In fact, she confided that she decided to work at the restaurant because "I ate here all the time, anyway."

It certainly can't be the decor that's been responsible for Bitz-ee Mama's long run. The look is pure coffee shop: orange and brown vinyl booths, with paper-napkin holders on the table, baskets of artificial plants on the wall, and a display case with gum, cigarettes and candy bars by the cash register. You have about as much chance finding ethnic-design flair at Bitz-ee Mama's as you do finding snow on top of Squaw Peak.

However, the all-American setting shouldn't blind you to the fact that some of the ethnic fare is quite tasty, at prices that are just as easy to swallow.

The kitchen seems to put most of its efforts into the Mexican dishes. As you might expect in a place where the dinner crowd arrives about 4:30, there's nothing remotely adventurous about the fare--look for the usual Sonoran taco, enchilada, burro, tamale and chimichanga staples. Don't expect much in the way of south-of-the-border chile heat, either. You could feed just about anything here to a newborn with perfect confidence.

You can munch on the chips and salsa with perfect confidence, too. That's because the salsa is thick with chunks of tomato and scallions, and the chips are crunchily fresh.

That freshness spills over into the entrees, as well. The hefty, three-way chimichanga is marvelous, a light, flaky, right-out-of-the-fryer beauty packed with beans, red chile beef and green chile beef, topped with guacamole, sour cream and cheese. Serious eaters only need apply. Enchiladas are equally scrumptious, if the beef model I sampled is any indication.

The red burro is a two-hander, thick with tender beef in a red sauce that makes up in character what it lacks in bite. Chicken flautas, too, are first-rate, crispy, deep-fried corn tortillas stuffed with hunks of poultry and garnished with cheese and guacamole. Rice and beans, meanwhile, do the job they're supposed to do--fill the space on the combo plate and in your belly.

Not everything shines. The tamale is disappointing--it's light on flavor. Nor do the tacos and tostadas rise above routine.

The Italian dinners were reasonably effective, but that's about all the praise I can muster. Actually, I'm surprised I can work up even that much enthusiasm, considering the dreadful chicken-noodle soup or insipid iceberg lettuce salad that precedes them. Eggplant parmigiana is the best pick, thickly layered and covered with lots of bubbling cheese. Someone forgot to add beef to the otherwise-hearty wedge of lasagna. The baked ziti is filling and forgettable.

At dessert time, the menu urges diners to "try our variety of pies. Close to home-made." This didn't exactly seem like a ringing endorsement, so we opted for the "made to order" apple supreme, a deep-fried tortilla crammed with apples and caramel sauce, dusted with cinnamon and served with ice cream. It's probably what put the Wisconsin couple in such a good mood.

Bitz-ee Mama's has had its fingers on the pulse of neighborhood taste for a long time. West-side newcomers on the prowl for upscale alternatives had better get used to it.

Back Alley Grille:
Oysters Rockefeller
Roast duck
Rack of lamb

Bitz-ee Mama's Restaurant:
Red burro
Three-way chimichanga
Tostada, tamale combo
Apple supreme

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Howard Seftel