Cafe Reviews

Mexed Review

Las Cazuelas, 5150 West McDowell, Phoenix, 278-4885. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

It's generally understood in the scientific community that biology is destiny.

First distinction: man or woman. Then tall or short, smart or slow, beautiful or ugly, athletic or klutzy, and an almost infinite variety of other poles and points in between.

It's no doubt true that even after they've been genetically imprinted, people still have ample opportunity to shape their fate. After all, certain qualities that define who we are, like honest behavior or great wealth, have little to do with our individual genetic predispositions. Maybe someday I could be as saintly as Mother Teresa or hit a PowerBall jackpot. But no amount of luck, will power or effort on my part will ever turn me into Miss America, the Suns' starting center or a rocket scientist.

When the subject is the Valley's low-cost ethnic restaurants, it's generally understood in the culinary community that geography is destiny. In high-rent Scottsdale, for example, your chances of finding cheap, tasty Mexican food are about the same as finding a child prodigy among the offspring of Arkansas first cousins. Sure, the possibility exists, but experience suggests that, in both cases, you'd be better off looking for more fertile breeding grounds elsewhere.

The west side, on the other hand, offers just the right soil to sustain good-quality, budget-priced, south-of-the-border dishes. In this part of town, the cost of doing business is low, while neighborhood knowledge and interest in Mexican food are high.

Recent visits to Las Cazuelas on the west side and Frank & Lupe's in Scottsdale furnished additional evidence to support the ethnic-restaurant geography theory.

Although it's set on the edge of a large shopping-strip eyesore, Las Cazuelas is no run-down joint. It's quite neat and spiffy, which is maybe why the place attracts so many families. The brightly decorated dining area is covered with pretty tile work, some of it hand painted. Fannies rest comfortably in upholstered chairs. And each table sports a vase with artificial flowers.

Of course, you can't escape the usual Mexican-restaurant design touches. The television is tuned to a Spanish-language station; low-decibel mariachi music is piped in; beer pennants are strung across the room; and serapes are tacked up at intervals along the wall.

You won't want to escape from the fare. It's fresh. It's cheap. And for the most part, it's very, very tasty.

The warm, salty, crunchy chips give every indication that they're only a few minutes removed from the cooking process. Mouth-tingling red and green chile salsas make dipping an attractive option. Ask for an icy-cold Mexican brew or a potent margarita to wash it all down. You're about to discover life can be not only good, it can also be affordable.

That's because nothing on this menu goes for more than $9.49. And that item, a campechana cocktail, is irresistible. It's a big glass loaded with shrimp and the tenderest octopus my bicuspids have encountered in a long time. Chunks of avocado, cucumbers, onions and cilantro provide additional gilding. (You can get smaller amounts of the same ingredients for about one third the cost by ordering the ceviche tostada.)

Las Cazuelas has a way with seafood. The Costa Brava is exceptional, a seven seas stew fully stocked with shrimp, octopus, squid, clams, scallops, crab and hunks of snapper. All this aquatic life is accompanied by potatoes, carrots and squash in a lip-smacking broth that's zipped up with a large dose of hot red chile. Squeeze in some lime to dampen the flames, and I promise you'll be as happy as Shamu at feeding time.

Camarónes rancheros also presses the right buttons. The kitchen sends out nine high-quality butterflied shrimp in a hissing skillet, surrounded by sizzling onions, peppers and tomatoes, at a friendly west-side price. Consider dropping your line as well for the pescado a la diabla, a large, lovely fillet of flaky red snapper, lightly breaded with a spicy red chile coating. The waiter tries to steer gringos away from this platter, but veteran Mexican-food fans shouldn't have any trouble handling the heat.

The one ocean-based dish to avoid? That would be the massive fish burrito, fashioned from rubbery fish sticks slathered with a dull white sauce.

The cook shows flashes of skill with landlubber fare, too. The chile verde plate could tempt a vegetarian: You'll find fork-tender cubes of moist pork smoothed with a subtle green chile sauce. You'll also have a swine time with the carnitas burrito, which features lots of thin-sliced grilled meat.

If you prefer beef and want change back from a five, consider the carne asada torta. It's a big sandwich on a fresh Mexican roll, stuffed with grilled beef, guacamole, cheese, lettuce and tomato.

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Howard Seftel