Cafe Reviews

Mex Without Guilt

Arizona Burrito Company, Gateview Shopping Center, 6941 North Hayden, Scottsdale, 922-9466. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Saturday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Remember the "Me Decade"? The 1970s were the dawning of a new age, and it wasn't the Age of Aquarius. The best sellers told us flower power was out: The smart folks were all Looking Out for Number 1, any way they could. Tennis pros learned they could get endorsements by throwing tantrums on the court and explaining to adoring fans that they were just getting in touch with their feelings. No-talent wanna-be rock stars whose music couldn't get anyone's attention figured out that biting off the heads of live chickens and wearing Addams Family makeup went a lot farther than guitar lessons. Goodness, even our president put his own political well-being ahead of his oath of office.

In the 1980s, the Me Generation glided into the Greed Generation. Self-satisfied yuppies dressed their kids in designer duds; Wall Street rewarded heartless executives for throwing millions out of work; and shortstops with a .220 batting average whose teams finished last held out for a three-year deal at two million per.

In the 1990s, the culture of narcissism has moved into new territory. Our national preoccupation with self-love currently manifests itself through an obsession with the body. Great abs. Great thighs. Great butt. Slim figure. And with perverse American genius, we've managed to transform this mania into a virtue.

How? By confusing shapeliness with well-being. Once the connection is made, idiotic calorie counting looks like a form of virtuous self-denial. Fretting over fat grams comes off as strength of character. After all, who can argue against good health?

As with all cults, this crackpot movement has a quasi-religious dimension. Even the vocabulary of eating is symbolically charged: Fettuccine Alfredo is "wicked"; chocolate cake is "sinful"; indulge at Thanksgiving and you're "bad."

Nowadays, overweight folks are not merely aesthetically unappealing; they're outright moral failures, out of step with the Divine Plan. A hundred years ago, being rich was considered a sign of God's grace. Today, it's being thin. If Jesus were wandering in the Sonoran Desert in 1997, the Devil wouldn't bother tempting Him with power or riches. He'd hold out the prospect of a medium-rare steak, fried chicken or hot-fudge sundae.

That brings us to the latest good-for-you food fad, healthful Mexican cooking. Once upon a time, a heart-healthy Mexican meal meant stubbing out your cigarette before you plowed through a cheese-draped chimichanga. Not anymore. Look at the gushing promises made by the Valley's nutritionally correct Mexican restaurants. They all but claim that a no-lard number 3 combination plate can do more for you than a trip to Lourdes.

Someone once asked Woody Allen if sex has to be messy and dirty. "Only if it's done right," he replied. Well, that's how I feel about burros, tacos and beans. Do they have to be loaded with calories and fat grams? Only if they're done right.

However, I'm in the minority. Lots of locals prefer their Mexican food without a side order of nutritional guilt. And this being America, land of opportunity, there's been no shortage of entrepreneurs rushing in, eager to feed their stricken consciences.

The Arizona Burrito Company is one such enterprise. It's a neat, tidy storefront, dedicated mostly to takeout. Nutritional-information pamphlets sit prominently on the counter. You'll discover that the Heart-Smart pork burro weighs precisely 468 grams and contains 588 calories, 98 of which are derived from its 11 fat grams. (That's 17 percent of the burro's total calories--Arizona Burrito Company helpfully does the math for you.) Four of the fat grams are saturated fat. There are exactly 61 milligrams of cholesterol and 960 milligrams of salt. You'll digest 82 grams of carbohydrates, 38 grams of protein and 11 grams of dietary fiber. And you'll receive 10 percent of your daily recommended dose of vitamin A, 44 percent of vitamin C, 11 percent of calcium and 35 percent of iron.

It makes your mouth water just thinking about it.
As you might expect, your conscience will probably leave here happier than your taste buds. But there are several decent efforts. The Diamondback Cajun Shrimp burrito doesn't merit a Heart-Smart designation, which may explain its appeal. It's got lots of shrimp and real bite, which helps overcome the bland, fat-free sour cream and no-lard beans. The smoky Cowboy Barbecue with grilled chicken also has some zip. The hefty Grand Canyon burrito, a chicken-steak combo, is the most caloric item here. It greatly benefits from red onions and olives. And the Pork Fajita burrito comes stuffed with peppers and plenty of tender meat.

But be prepared to be underwhelmed by the Lake Havasu burrito, a snoozy mix of shrimp and onions. The lackluster Basic Steak burrito is not how I'd choose to get my animal protein. The Garden Veggie burrito comes with sauteed yellow squash, zucchini, carrot, broccoli, pepper, onion and almost no flavor. And one day's burro special--grilled ahi tuna--featured rubbery, disagreeable shards of overcooked fish.

One way to brighten the fare would be to pep up the salsas. These days, many Mexican restaurants do wonderful salsas: chunky fruit salsas, thick pico de gallo, fresh tomatillo. But Arizona Burrito Company's three generic salsas--hot, medium, mild--have almost nothing going for them.

Kokopelli, Camelback Colonnade, 1949 East Camelback, Phoenix, 279-9302. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Kokopelli markets itself as "the healthy alternative." I'm sure even the tacos and burros that don't sport the Heart-Smart endorsement are probably better for you than, say, a mound of onion rings and a banana split. But is that why you should eat here?

If you order right, you don't need to justify a visit to Kokopelli. When the kitchen's on, you'll be too happy chewing to dwell on your good health. But when the kitchen's off, you'll likely be contemplating a run from the border.

Stale chips don't make much of a first impression. Neither do the unappealing salsas, even though Kokopelli touts them as homemade daily. The hot salsa seems to be thickened with tomato paste. The off-putting tomatillo/green-chile salsa tasted so bizarrely sweet that I scraped it off my food. The guacamole, meanwhile, seems to be seasoned with nothing more pungent than air.

Is Kokopelli's barbacoa a lucky fluke? Who knows? But it is the single best item I had on my south-of-the-border health-food expedition. Tender, juicy shredded beef, braised with cumin, peppers, cloves and orange--you can taste the citrus tang--is wrapped in a 13-inch tortilla. It's embellished with zippy cilantro-lime rice and pinto beans. Why couldn't anything else have tasted this good?

The carnitas fajita burrito almost does. Like the barbacoa, it doesn't meet Heart-Smart standards, but it passes every taste test. The mix of pork, sour cream, rice and grilled peppers and onions makes a very appealing package.

Unfortunately, the other menu options range from routine to awful. The fish taco has too much bulk, too little flavor. The tiny pieces of mahimahi make no taste impression whatsoever. The steak burrito is done in by chewy beef. The chicken burrito tastes like every chicken burrito at every Mexican fast-food parlor in Arizona.

Legume lovers won't be pleased with the vegetarian fajita burrito. "What are the vegetables?" I asked. The gal behind the counter shrugged, pulled off a metal lid from a vat and told me to look in. I saw peppers, corn, onions and squash simmering in a mushy pulp. Yes, I know it's more labor-intensive and expensive to grill up fresh veggies than it is to boil them. But if it expects customers to order the vegetarian fajita burrito more than once, that's what Kokopelli should be doing.

Zorro's Fresh Burrito Grill, 1835 East Guadalupe (next to Fry's), Tempe, 838-6884. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Zorro's doesn't explicitly promote itself as a health-Mex operation. It doesn't furnish you with nutritional breakdowns or calorie counts. But nothing is deep-fried, drenched with sour cream or prepared with lard. Body cultists could eat here in perfect confidence.

So can undemanding Mexican-food fans. There's some pleasant cooking going on here.

Take the vegetable torta. Unlike what I found at Kokopelli, I saw someone grilling and charring big hunks of pepper, onion and squash and putting them on a fresh Mexican roll. Good for you? Who cares? This sandwich is flat-out good.

The double-wrapped fish taco is one of the better models I've run across. That's because the tuna is marinated in citrus and grilled, not fried. Cabbage, cilantro and a dynamite mango-papaya salsa complete the package.

Why don't more places offer nopales? These tender strips of cactus are grilled, then tossed with onions and peppers. At $1.95, the nopales taco won't expand your waistline or dent your wallet.

Your burrito experience will be enhanced if you shell out an extra $1.25 for sour cream and guacamole. Still, the stripped-down steak model works well enough on its own because of the tasty beef. The pork burrito would have been more enjoyable had the pork been spooned on with a more generous hand. The chicken burrito is serviceable enough.

Zorro's needs to be a little more vigilant about its chips and salsas. The bagged chips that accompany the burritos had lost all their crunch by the time I got them. And while the salsa bar is a good idea, someone needs to monitor it. On one visit, the tomatillo salsa had turned noticeably bad.

Eating good-for-you Mexican fare is like taking your sister to the prom: You can have a pleasant enough time, but you know the evening's not going to end in romance. I'd rather stay home, eat a salad and squeeze the Thigh Master.

Arizona Burrito Company:
Garden veggie burrito
Diamondback Cajun burrito

Fish tacos

Zorro's Fresh Burrito Grill:
Fish taco
Vegetable torta
Steak burrito

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Howard Seftel