The west-side restaurant scene could use some help. Fine dining? You'd have better luck scouring the avenues looking for the Loch Ness monster. Meanwhile, every chain restaurant on the planet maintains an outpost in the region. If it weren't for a few ethnic storefronts, west-siders with sophisticated palates might find starving to death an agreeable option.
Fortunately, a couple of new Mexican places, Madera Grille and Vallarta's Mexican Grill & Seafood, are adding some sheen to the west side's ethnic luster.
Madera Grille, in fact, would add luster to any location. After they get off their knees in grateful thanks, west-siders with a taste for outstanding south-of-the-border fare should get over here as fast as the speed limit allows.
Diners won't find a menu filled with the usual Az-Mex mix of suspects: If you yearn for nachos, tacos and burritos, save yourself a trip and head for any fast-food outlet whose name ends in ". . . berto's." You also won't see servers dressed in Mexican peasant blouses or hear ayay-ay music blasting from the jukebox. Heck, you won't even get a basket of chips.
What you will find are the kind of regional Mexican dishes that show off the country's rich culinary heritage, delivered at wallet-friendly prices. How impressed am I? It's not too much of a stretch to think of Madera Grille as Such Is Life, on a budget.
Location is a big reason that costs are down. Set in a new shopping strip at the highly unfashionable southeast corner of 67th Avenue and Bethany Home, Madera Grille isn't exactly on restaurant row. Then again, the proprietors aren't paying Scottsdale rents, either.
But they haven't stinted on the look. Inside, the place is neat and spiffy clean, attractively done up in comforting earth tones. Slow-moving fans whir from the ceiling. Shelves along the walls are lined with all sorts of knickknacks. Painted canvas curtains shade the windows, while the tables are covered with oilcloth. Light jazz from KYOT comes over the speaker system. The restaurant is so nicely designed that you might actually forget you're overlooking a shopping-strip parking lot.
The owners aren't newcomers to the restaurant business, having worked in the past at nonculinary sides of the trade. But they are new to the food side of the operation. Happily, they've brought in a talented chef who can relieve all their anxieties about what comes out of the kitchen.
There's a philosophy at work at Madera Grille: fresh, made-daily-from-scratch food, prepared without lard or fat, and with no microwaving or frying. It's not a philosophy you often run into west of I-17, or in Mexican restaurants. But it's a philosophy that's easy to embrace.
Because Madera Grille is a no-fry zone, chips are out. In this instance, however, I wish the kitchen would relax its principles. That's because the trio of ravishing salsas are as good as any in the Valley. The chunky pico de gallo, the smoky chipotle and the zesty tomatillo are ideally suited for chip-dipping. My advice: Order the salsas to go, and buy a bag of chips on the way home.
Several appetizers will take your mind off the lack of chips. Think of chilaquiles as a tortilla casserole, a kind of Mexican lasagna. Corn tortillas are layered with tangy queso fresco, a fresh Mexican white cheese, and pico de gallo, then baked. It's a simple dish, and very effective.
The cheese fondues, made with a stretchy blend of mozzarella and Chihuahua, are good enough to make appetizer-sharing a competitive sport. I especially enjoyed the model topped with chorizo, whose spicy bite provides a nice foil to the mild cheeses.
You don't see nopales often enough at local Mexican restaurants. It's the "paddle" part of a prickly pear cactus, and it's extremely healthful. Madera Grille fashions a salad out of it, freshening the nopales with lemon and olive oil, and touching everything up with tomato, onion, cilantro and queso fresco.
The homey main dishes burst with fresh, vibrant flavors. I imagine a talented Mexican grandmother might cook like this, if she'd had some culinary training. Why can't Mexican food always taste this good?
I love the three stews. Cochinita pibil, a Yucatán pork dish, is a marvel. You can't miss the sweet, tangy bite of the annatto seed sauce, fashioned with oranges and vinegar. The pork itself, meanwhile, is almost unnaturally lean, juicy and tender. Beef ranchero gets a boost from another seriously delicious sauce, this one put together with onions, tomatoes, peppers and spices. Once again, the meat quality is exceptional -- I didn't encounter a speck of fat or gristle. And though the lamb stew seems more French than Mexican, I couldn't get too worked up over the point of origin. That's because the chef simmers lovely chunks of leg of lamb in an herb-rich red wine sauce, and gooses it up with carrots and celery. When the weather turns cool, this hearty dish will make you feel warm on the inside.