Cafe Reviews

Stuffing Shockers

I'm going to go out on a limb and say this: Cheating is good for us. When it comes to primal urges, human beings aren't designed to be monogamous. Even Charles Darwin, after discovering female barnacles that kept a tiny male partner in each of two little pockets inside their shells, acknowledged that the Victorian notion of naturally monogamous females wasn't pure.

People crave variety when satisfying their ignoble stirrings. But leave betraying romantic partners to bottom feeders like barnacles and Bill Clinton; the only straying I'm condoning involves that other most compelling human craving -- food.

Think about it. How many times have you visited a Mexican restaurant? How many times have you gone straight to your regular squeeze -- a cheese crisp, a couple of tacos or maybe an enchilada? How many times have you sneaked a peek at the luscious plates on neighboring tables? And how many times, finally, have you left, quietly satisfied, yet wondering deep down if other diners are having more fun than you are?

They might very well be. The Valley's awash with exciting Mexican dining choices. Here, in our bustling little burg, there are places like El Tepeyac in South Phoenix, where diners wanting to test different waters will find a warm, and invigorating, welcome.

El Tepeyac opened early last year, just south of the legendary eatery Los Dos Molinos, and a hop away from South Mountain. Named after an Aztec hill upon which the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared in 1531, the restaurant proves an experimental rendezvous doesn't need to be sleazy. The bland green-and-white box exterior belies the charms within, with brilliant Aztec murals splashed across the walls, elegant chandeliers, silk flowers and hanging plants. In this part of town, it's unlikely anyone would know your name, but if they did, they likely wouldn't see you anyway, nuzzling with your new dish in a tall-backed booth amid the cool darkness of serape-draped windows.

With a menu that's heavy on seafood, El Tepeyac invites adventure. With a supporting cast of familiar burritos, tacos and chimis, though, the safety net's firmly in place. Quesadilla mesclada, for example, is simply a mixed quesadilla, combining white and yellow cheeses, beautifully charred chunks of beef, tomato, green pepper, onion and the mildest whisper of green chile. But the two giant flour tortillas enveloping the mix are homemade, and expertly grilled to a bubbly golden turn. Be warned -- although the quesadilla is listed as an appetizer, it's more than a meal. Lighter appetites can find smaller starter satisfaction in a sopa de pastor, a compact, fluffy masa cake topped with spicy grilled pork nubbins, refried beans, cheese and lettuce.

Timid tasters will find their coctel de camaron (shrimp cocktail) at El Tepeyac, but step out a little and explore the vuelve a la vida. Beyond its supposed ability to cure a hangover, the dish brings a sultry tumble of shrimp, tender octopus, squid and oysters, spiked with cucumber, onion, avocado, cilantro and lime.

Yes, that's real turtle in the caldo de caguamanta, I'm assured, but I truly doubt it's actually caguama, a large, now endangered, reptile. The stew isn't often available, though, and there's more to appreciate in the caldo siete mares (seven seas stew), anyway. The thin orange broth is bracingly fishy, thanks to a variety of sea critters including soft calamari, big shrimp, firm fish, octopus and oysters speckled with green pepper, tomato, onion and cilantro. Spice is self-regulated, and you'll want more, added in from little cups of salsa on the table.

A shrimp taco benefits from salsa, too (the taco's not on the menu, but comes when I order a fish taco, so feel free to ask for it). The deep-fried crustaceans are on the dry side, dipped in nutty batter and wrapped in double corn tortillas with iceberg lettuce, tomato and onion. Shrimp are better served as enchiladas, three thick rolls buoyed by lots of cheese and mellow red chili sauce.

Spicing begins to slink in with the most traditional dish, a No. 7 combination plate, a favorite I sample for control purposes (and, well, because all wild variety aside, I really like green chili burritos). Heat lurks in the burrito, and as an unexpected but lovely punch, in a dollop of creamy guacamole perched alongside. This is the style of burrito I favor -- thinly wrapped in its flour tortilla so each bite tastes of beef and chili, not starch. Rounding out the plate are an everyday chicken taco, and a rolled taco, soft and stuffed with potato. The best, though, are the outstanding sides of beans and rice. So often overlooked, El Tepeyac's versions have been treated with great respect, rendering slurp-worthy soupy beans and moist, soft rice dotted with peas.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet