Cafe Reviews

STATE OF HEAT

When cowboy-movie star Tom Mix "bought the farm" in a fatal 1940 car accident, he also left a farm behind--thousands of acres of grazing land south of Phoenix and a white adobe house.

A half-century later, the "old Tom Mix house," as it is still called, is the newest branch of Los Dos Molinos. Owner Vicky Chavez, together with daughters Sandi, Cheryl, Loretta and son-in-law Tony and other assorted family members, have transformed Mix's Arizona "dream ranch" into a dream of their own: a glamorous, "upscale" showcase for Vicky's fiery New Mexico-style cooking.

And while most of the South Phoenix structure is still adobe white, the new restaurant is colorful in a way Tom Mix probably never imagined. Tables are tiled in sun yellow and cobalt blue. Vivid-hued paintings of Southwestern American Indians cover the walls. Bright folk art, reminiscent of Oaxaca or New Mexico, decorates the periphery of the space. As for the antique ranch-kitchen stoves, my guess is that they would make Tom Mix feel right at home.

A quick Spanish lesson: Los Dos Molinos means "the two mills." The mills in question are hand-cranked and used for grinding chiles. Some are on display and Vicky Chavez has plans to demonstrate their use in the future.

Which makes sense, for chiles play an important role in Chavez's cooking. We're talking Hatch, New Mexico, chiles here--the real thing, hot as hell and proud of it. At Los Dos Molinos, they'll warn you that the food is spicy. They also watch to see what you can handle.

The chips-and-salsa course separates the fire-eaters from the tender-tongued. If you've finished off a pitcher of water before your order is taken, the staff will steer you toward the least inflammable offerings--cheese crisp, guacamole tostada, bean-and-cheese burro. If, on the other hand, you swallow down one or both dishes of scorching salsa and seem to be thriving, they'll let you order what New Mexicans eat: green or red chile, but especially the green.

So what should you order? What's good here? In a word, everything. I became an habitue of the original Los Dos Molinos--an inauspicious A-frame at the corner of Alma School and Main Street in Mesa--in early 1986. I can't remember when I've ever been anything less than ecstatic with the food. My experiences at the new Los Dos Molinos do not contradict that. If it's green chile you want (and you should want it), the green-chile plate and green-chile burro are both outstanding. I guarantee these morsels of beef in fiery green chile will warm you from the inside out.

For an exercise in red, try the carne adovada. This dish features succulent red-chile-marinated pork chunks and melted cheese wrapped in a homemade flour tortilla. It's mmmmm-mmmmm good.

Blue-corn enchiladas are a specialty of the casa. These cheese-filled delights are slathered with the chile of your choice (red or green) and topped with a fried egg. I love the combination of textures and flavors, and the mix of spicy and not-spicy ingredients.

Green-corn tamales are a "cooler" option. Vicky's husk-wrapped version features dense masa that stands about one inch high. Though she uses yellow corn instead of baby-tender white, I still like these chile-flecked tamales.

Even something as basic as guacamole succeeds in being exceptional at Los Dos Molinos. Here, the mellow green stuff--made fresh from scratch daily--manages to be simultaneously creamy and chunky and is lemon-tinged. To accommodate South Phoenix tastes, Vicky has changed the way she makes her beans. Instead of serving whole pintos, she now mashes them to make refrieds. Though I liked her beans the old way, I like the new way even better. When crushed, the beans release more flavor.

The food is plentiful at Los Dos Molinos, but do try to save room for some crispy fried tortilla strips or a sopaipilla (or two) for dessert. The "sopas" are light as air and, when sprinkled with powdered sugar or cinnamon, taste like some kind of ideal doughnut. Crispies are a crunchy-sweet way to end your meal.

The new South Central Los Dos Molinos is a deluxe version of the two existing Mesa restaurants. (A fourth branch, run by daughter Antoinette, is located in Springerville not far from the ranch where Vicky Chavez grew up.) And though the new restaurant does succeed in many areas, all is not perfection. Acoustics and lighting are problematic. Voices bounce off the restaurant's hard surfaces, making quiet conversation difficult. Also, the lack of windows makes the space cavernlike.

But these are minor complaints. The food and service at the new Los Dos Molinos are as good as ever, and if it's light you want, you have the option of sitting outside in the courtyard for a drink (but no food service). Best of all, you and I no longer have to drive to Mesa for the Valley's hottest Mexican food. Just head down Central Avenue. When you see what might pass for a cowboy-movie star's Arizona dream ranch, stop.

"Are you guys artists or something?"
This is how our waiter greets us at Marilyn's First Mexican Restaurant in the Scottsdale Seville shopping plaza. Mind you, I'm not complaining. In my book, this is a supreme compliment. Flattery will get you . . . well, flattery might get you a good tip, anyway.

Which is precisely what happens. Not just because of our waiter's way with words, of course, but because, in addition to being friendly, articulate and helpful, he performs his job well. As one of the older, more mature members of the wait crew (he is 23 years old, tops), he is slightly removed from the ongoing interplay between the serving senoritas and senors. You know, the boys watch the girls and the girls wait on tables knowing the boys are watching.

But that's understandable. The staff here at Marilyn's new First Mexican Restaurant is young and wholesome. The boys appear athletic and all-American in their bright shirts with black piping. Some of the girls still haven't developed hips, and they look cute in their festive, flouncy, tiered, multicolored uniform-costumes of magenta, yellow and turquoise. Ole!

Don't get me wrong. I like the uniforms here. They go perfectly with the interior design of Marilyn's, which I also like, though it is a bit studied, perhaps even commercial. Our booth is upholstered in gaily striped Mexican fabric with a magenta headrest and a yellow vinyl seat. A simulated wooden beach shack "shades" our heads. Mexican dolls, encased in protective plastic cubes, are affixed to the walls. And in an exceptionally nice touch, a small live flowering plant sits on each table.

In keeping with this festive atmosphere, the food at Marilyn's is fun, fun, fun! It's nonscary, nonthreatening and mostly nonauthentic. All of your standard gringo basics are here: fajitas, fundidos, nachos, chimichangas, taco salads. Portions are big and ingredients are moderated to please American palates of all ages.

And, while this is not the kind of Mexican food that turns me on, I think Marilyn's does a good job with it. Melted-cheese-covered chicken fundidos are as innocuous as a comforting tuna melt. A sizzling shrimp fajita platter is colorful, not overly salty and features a dozen good-size shrimp--it is worth its $11.95 asking price.

Soup is good at Marilyn's. The albondigas is better than average. It's packed with lots of chopped fresh vegetables and multiple meatballs. The flavors of tomato and oregano come through strong. Marilyn's tortilla soup is the Mexican equivalent of French onion soup. Gooey cheese atop crisp tortilla chips dominates this bowl of chicken broth and vegetables. My advice? Don't order it on a first date or a business interview.

Of the items I sample, the least successful is a soft fish taco, served upright in a plastic "taco stand." The taco is extremely difficult to eat because of its ample portions of peppery halibut and generous slivers of avocado nestled on a bed of slawlike marinated cabbage. It is also bland.

I'm also not crazy about the chocolate taco. While it is very pretty (our waiter tells us he assembled it himself) and I like the cinnamon ice cream and apple-pineapple topping, I dislike the chocolate taco shell, which tastes more like stale chocolate-covered graham crackers than real chocolate. Up in the front of the restaurant, a woman prepares balls of flour tortilla dough for grilling. She kneads and pulls and pats. Behind her, a man roasts chiles, chops fajita vegetables and starts those platters a-sizzling. It's a good attempt on the part of Marilyn's to simulate authenticity, but it doesn't fool me. We artist types can always discern real from fake.

Los Dos Molinos, 8646 South Central, Phoenix, 243-9113. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday; closed Monday.

Marilyn's First Mexican Restaurant, 7001 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 443-1399. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday.

los dos molinos

We're talking Hatch, New Mexico, chiles here--the real thing, hot as hell and proud of it. I can't remember when I've ever been anything less than ecstatic with the food at Los Dos Molinos.

marilyn's

The food at Marilyn's is fun, fun, fun! It's nonscary, nonthreatening and mostly nonauthentic. All of your standard gringo basics are here.

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Penelope Corcoran