Cafe Reviews

Mex Without Guilt

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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.

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Howard Seftel