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Sea, Señor

Could it be that Phoenix is finally becoming a town where restaurants can not only survive the summer, but also thrive? A recent rash of hot-weather expansions and grand openings suggests this might be the case. Now, let's all get out there and eat, to support these brave restaurateurs and...
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Could it be that Phoenix is finally becoming a town where restaurants can not only survive the summer, but also thrive? A recent rash of hot-weather expansions and grand openings suggests this might be the case. Now, let's all get out there and eat, to support these brave restaurateurs and their businesses.

Fish Story: Rita's Restaurant has completed its expansion, nearly doubling the size of the Mexican eatery's space at 35th Avenue and McDowell. A Valley favorite since 1985, Rita's charms us with fabulous home-style cooking, and tosses in a couple of surprises, as well. Craving diced cactus with pork? Rita's has it. How about lusty chicken mole? Or perhaps one of the best fish tacos in the west Valley? Rita's has them, too.

Now, Rita's also has a little competition. Two new Mexican restaurants have opened just north of chef-owner Rita Aramburo's store, dishing up some of the same fresh seafood that has become her trademark over the years. The more, the merrier.

Look for Mariscos Las Islitas on 35th Avenue at Monte Vista. The former fast-food shop has been redecorated in an ocean theme with some truly impressive murals inside. (Neptune, God of the Sea, never looked so good.) The menu's pretty enticing, too, with fresh oysters, shrimp, crab, tilapia fish, abalone, clams and octopus in every form imaginable. Try the Vuelve a la Vida ("come back to life"), a seafood cocktail with little bits of everything aquatic tossed in.

A few steps farther north along 35th Avenue, at Thomas, is the new Coctelería Pacífico, a somewhat dressier, sit-down affair dishing out fresh sea creatures such as gorgeous oysters on the half-shell. The restaurant's set back a bit, but look for it next to the impossible-to-miss Mustang Sally's Cabaret.

One thing: Don't let the neighborhood fool you. These places aren't necessarily cheap. An appetizer of lemon shrimp at Mariscos Las Islitas, for example, will set you back 15 clams; a dozen oysters at Coctelería Pacífico will have you shucking out $12; and Rita's commands $13 for shrimp ceviche.

Más Nuevo: More activity in the west Valley: Raquel's is now serving New Mexican cuisine at 59th Avenue and Greenway Road in Glendale. Look for Hatch chiles (of course), stacked enchiladas topped with fried egg, tortilla-crusted halibut with chipotle sauce, and the chef's favorite, blackened ahi with pineapple salsa.

Goodwill Hunting: In one of the more curious restaurant locations we've heard of, Chrissy's Famous Sweet Potato Pies has opened inside the Goodwill building at 16th Street and Fillmore. Owned by Christine Downing, the shop came to be after demand from her Goodwill Industries clients -- she had been teaching them to bake pies for the past several months.

Chrissy's is hidden in the back of Goodwill, but it's worth searching out for Downing's nine varieties of sweet potato pies and soul food, including smothered pork chops, meat loaf, barbecue, okra, greens and sweet corn.

Are the victuals good? Well, the folks at Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe endorse the place, and there's just nothing better than that.

Thai This: Asian food is everywhere these days, and we've just added another eatery in Tempe. Jax Thai Bar debuted last week at Fifth Street and Mill, promising its diners an "atomic" experience. What this means, the helpful man on the phone explains, is "exciting sauces ranging from medium hot to atomic hot." Jax also promises "high performance cocktails" and a "sophisticated urban setting." We'll have to Thai it out.

Boudin Boundin' In: Cajun is another dining trend gaining speed nationwide, and Pappadeaux knows how to push the specialty items such as Boudin Cajun sausage. The Cajun and Creole seafood chain concept is setting up shop at I-17 and Peoria Avenue in Phoenix.

Pappadeaux gets good Zagat ratings from its existing stores in Georgia, Texas, Illinois and Colorado, primarily for its huge portions. The menu sure reads well, featuring Gulf Coast seafood served mesquite-grilled, charbroiled or blackened. Highlights include fried alligator, whole boiled crawfish, po' boys, gumbo, étouffée and Oysters Pappadeaux with crabmeat, spinach and hollandaise sauce.

It's relatively standard stuff, although the blackened Opelousas (a Louisiana town considered the heart of Cajun country) and pan-broiled Pontchartrain (a resort-strewn lake area of Louisiana) do sound intriguing. Those are big portions.

Reach for the Moon: If ever a restaurant location was jinxed, it's the freestanding hall on the southwest corner of U.S. 60 and Alma School Road in Mesa. After housing Bsghetti for a short while a few years ago, the cavernous space then made way for Piatti (and was forced to change its name to Piadini even before opening when a large chain of the same name announced its arrival to the Valley). After a short stint, Piatti shut down and new owners opened Fajitas. That barely lasted long enough to let the sizzle hit the grill. Now, Moon Star Chinese Buffet is moving in. Here's hoping your fortune cookie portends a better future, guys.

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