Cafe Reviews


Kasha's Cafe & Grill, 18631 North 19th Avenue, Phoenix, 582-2996. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., Fridays and Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sundays.

Imagine members of a local bowling team discussing where they should have dinner after a night at the alley. One guy wants mozzarella sticks and a Philly cheese-steak sandwich. Someone else longs for broasted alligator tail and elk chops. Another craves battered zucchini slices and a chicken-and-ribs combo. A fourth pleads for grilled quail and a buffalo steak. The team captain doesn't care what he eats, as long as there are several dozen beers on tap and a flaming cherries jubilee dessert. In the old days, it would have been unlikely that team unity could have been maintained, confronted with such divergent tastes. But that was before Kasha's arrived on the Valley scene. Offering what must be the weirdest combination of menu options this side of Krypton, Kasha's is a delightful hoot.

It's run by a husband-and-wife team that recently disposed of a liquor store and looked around for something else to do. She wanted to set up a bar. He wanted a restaurant. We got Kasha's. (It's scary to think what might have resulted if hubby had pushed for an oil-and-lube shop.) The place doesn't look like much. A bar and cooking area juts out into the center of a large, barnlike room. Coffee-shop-type booths and tables, a couple of wall-mounted televisions inexplicably not tuned to ESPN and some Ansel Adams prints complete the less-than-mesmerizing effect. Aside from the diverse dining choices, Kasha's has another attraction--its method of cooking. Rattlesnake, alligator, Rocky Mountain oysters, quail, zucchini, potatoes and chicken all come broasted. That means quick-cooking in bubbling oil heated to approximately the surface temperature of Venus--360 degrees. You definitely don't want to put your face too close to the broaster. Broasting is supposed to make food less greasy than ordinary deep-fat frying. The broasted-zucchini appetizer didn't permit us to make any definitive observations, because we demolished it too fast. The squash, dipped in beer batter, is as good as I've had, crisp and irresistible.

It's best swilled with any of the outstanding beers on tap, which include such formidable names as Pilsner Urquell, Watney's, Warsteiner, Double Diamond and Labatt's. A large glass of one of these premium brews runs three bucks. Meals come with soup or salad, and both are far better than I would have imagined. The navy-bean soup lacks the commercial, salty taste that ruins most efforts, while bits of bacon add to the attraction. And though the salad is just the usual mix of greens, I enjoyed the lemony, Middle Eastern-style house dressing. There's a wonderful loaf of warm, crusty sourdough bread in the breadbasket, too.

The main-dish list reads as if it were devised by Timothy Leary in consultation with Marlin Perkins. Folks who plan their Saturday afternoons around reruns of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom should enjoy the two meaty elk chops in a heavy wine sauce. Elk packs a powerful, gamy wallop, but these chops are tender enough to make it all palatable. (What do you drink, asked one of my pals, with elk? Elkohol, of course.) Buffalo steak is another option for the bow-and-arrow crowd. It's a generous, charbroiled portion with plenty of flavor. Buffalo doesn't have the fat and cholesterol of prime beef--that's good. On the other hand, you won't get any of prime beef's juicy tenderness, either. If you've just got to have buffalo, you might be happier with it in Kasha's burger form. The wildlife extends to the appetizer list, as well. Broasted alligator tail sounded too interesting to pass up. We wondered where the proprietors secured the alligator meat. Visions of banjo-pluckin', swamp-wadin' Georgia backwoodsmen wrestling a reluctant critter onto the back of a pickup and driving west danced through our heads. The truth, alas, isn't quite so picturesque. All of Kasha's exotic meats are farm-raised, supplied by Shamrock Foods. Unfortunately, alligator tail--even broasted alligator tail--has few gastronomic charms once the novelty wears off. The more familiar main dishes are pretty tasty and cheap, an appealing duo. The signature broasted chicken comes with crisp skin and very moist meat. I can't vouch for any low-cal claims, but I can vouch for the fact that the chicken is cooked to order, and is not sitting around catching a few rays beneath a tanning lamp. The Philly cheese steak comes on a fresh sourdough roll with hefty amounts of grilled beef, onions, cheese and peppers. The chicken fettuccine Alfredo features a broasted chicken breast--bone and all--over lots of creamy pasta. It's bizarre, but filling enough to dent any appetite. And the $6.95 price tag will certainly please bargain hunters. Ribs was the only dish we couldn't work up any enthusiasm about. The ribs are meaty and tender enough, but severely short on the flavor that drives carnivores to gnaw on the bones. After our waitress informed us of the two dessert possibilities, I turned toward the kitchen door, half expecting to see Rod Serling peering out. That's because instead of apple pie and chocolate cake, Kasha's serves flaming cherries jubilee and bananas Foster. These two expensive treats are usually prepared tableside by tuxedo-clad servers in the glitziest continental restaurants. You'd have to imagine a McDonald's Happy Meal of McPheasant Under Glass to appreciate my level of astonishment.

But the cook whipped up quite acceptable liqueur-soaked versions, particularly of the bananas Foster. It's vanilla ice cream topped with bananas caramelized in brown sugar, doused with banana liqueur and triple sec, then flamed with brandy. At $3.95, you get your money's worth in sheer entertainment value alone. Kasha's may be off-the-wall, but it's fun. Servers are friendly, the beers are terrific and the fare is fresh and offbeat. I may even take up bowling again, if only to lure the team here.

Willi's Grill, 4820 North Central, Phoenix, 266-5988. Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Anyone who dreams of telling the boss goodbye and opening a restaurant might want to chat with the new-to-Phoenix Peruvian owners of recently opened Willi's Grill. In an effort to jump-start business, the place is open 15 hours a day, seven days a week, staffed by a helpful, hardworking crew. That's 105 hours a week, not including time for preparation and cleanup. These folks put in their 40 hours before the sun goes down on Wednesday.

Located in a former Jack-in-the-Box, the restaurant still resonates with dreaded corporate charm: booths, Tiffany-style lamps and plants so fake that even I, who once watered several plastic flower arrangements while my wife was out of town, recognized their inauthenticity. Don't look for plates or metal cutlery, either. Willi's is an order-at-the-counter, fast-food place.

Except for the food. It's miles better than the stuff at fast-food chains, and kilometers more interesting.

The distinguishing mark of the fare is its freshness. Nothing we ordered had been sitting around cooling, congealing or generally goofing off. Willi's clucks about its roast chicken, and with reason. It has some very meaty, juicy birds, which it serves whole or hacked into halves or quarters. Another good omen is the side order of rice enlivened with flavorful flecks of chorizo.

The chicken appears in another guise in the Oriental chicken dish. It's a big Styrofoam bowl, filled with soy-tinged diced chicken and egg over lots of white rice. At $2.99, you can do a lot worse at lunch. What everyone oohed and aahed about were the empanadas. Of South American origin, they're stuffed, deep-fried pouches that are as addictive as nicotine and probably not a whole lot more healthful. These doughy treats come crammed with egg, onion, tomato, raisins and beef or chicken. The taquito reminded me of the bad B-movie line "What's a beauty like you doing in a place like this?" It's much too good for fast food--two corn tortillas enfolding freshly grilled chicken or beef, garnished with lots of onions, lemon and cilantro. Willi's also does well with its sandwiches. First, it has managed to find a supplier who can deliver decent bread, which the kitchen grills.

Then it slaps on a variety of fillings. The steak sandwich features thin-sliced, gristle-free meat loaded with onions. The roast-pork version has tender bits of juicy, shredded pork. The Cuban sandwich, my favorite, combines roast pork, Swiss cheese and a thick slab of ham. Willi's even manages to whip up some homemade desserts. The flan seems to consist mostly of sweetened condensed milk drenched in caramelized sugar. Don't feed this to your kid just before bedtime. The owner put in a plug for his bread pudding, but he couldn't back it up--he'd run out. But that was all he couldn't back up. At Willi's, you can get fresh, well-prepared food, a full belly and change back from a five. Maybe it will start a trend.

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Howard Seftel