Cafe Reviews

THE GRILL FROM IPANEMA

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If you're looking to get away from the same old Mexican-Italian-Chinese ethnic rut, Cafe Brazil promises to take you on a reasonably priced journey to new culinary latitudes.

Julio G's, 7633 East Indian School, Scottsdale, 423-1600. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Unlike one-of-a-kind Cafe Brazil, Julio G's is a one-of-a-thousand outpost of Sonoran-style Mexican food in the Valley. But gringos looking for their combo No. 3 experience in a shiny setting should come away pleased. For one thing, they'll be entertained by talented weekend mariachis, who roam the restaurant playing for free. There's also the modish room itself: gleaming black, red and turquoise tiles, glass bricks and molded-tin ceiling, and walls lined with Spanish-language movie posters and colorful murals. What distinguishes Julio G's from its 999 competitors? First, there's fresh taste. Almost everything here sported signs of recent preparation. Second, the attention to individual flavors. For the most part, Julio G's doesn't buy into the gloopy-gloppy school of Sonoran cooking. You know what that is: Platters come draped under an indiscriminate canopy of cheese, beans, rice, shredded greenery, guacamole and sauce. Meanwhile, you poke around with your fork exclaiming, "What's this?" every time you hit something that might be a taco, enchilada or chile relleno. Sometimes you can't tell what it is even after you've had a bite. Unless you have your heart set on carrying home a doggy bag, it's a waste of belly room and money to bother with appetizers. The cheese quesadilla is a Sonoran snore. And why pay $4.25 to dip chips into spinach con queso when it costs nothing to dip them into two kinds of salsa? And the main dishes are worth being a little hungry for. Fajitas are impressive, particularly for the quality of the beef and pork. Both are juicy, with strong, meaty flavors, and there's plenty of them. And I also appreciated the mountain of sizzling onions on the skillet. It's an effective, low-cost touch that too many fajita platters ignore. Routine tortillas, guacamole, sour cream and tomatoes round out the dish. The menu promotes chicken and spinach enchiladas as a "new featured item." They deserve the promotion. Substantial chunks of fowl and greenery get along beautifully, accompanied by Mexican rice that tasted like the kitchen put some effort into it. The combo plate is a good test of a Sonoran restaurant's skills. With one exception, the one I put together at Julio G's passes the test. The green corn tamale may be just a tad light on flavor, and a tad heavy on construction, but it's undeniably moist and fresh. Chicken flautas are wonderful, juicy chunks of slightly charred chicken enfolded by a crunchy tortilla. The chile relleno, though, couldn't keep up; it's a lackluster specimen done in by nondescript ingredients and soggy texture. Pescado Veracruz is about as ambitious as the kitchen gets. It suffers in comparison to versions I've had in the Valley's funkier Mexican-seafood houses. The breaded fish is a little dry, the tomato sauce a little dull (the menu calls it "delicate"), and the olive and chile zest missing. Still, the comparison may be a bit unfair. After all, Julio G's aims to be Midwestern-visitor friendly.

Desserts hold no surprises, except for the unexpected enjoyment furnished by the flan. Our group nodded with pleasure over the burnt caramel taste and smooth, custardy texture. But you won't miss much if you skip the bready sopaipillas. If you're a foodie looking for inventive Mexican cuisine, Julio G's is obviously not where you're going to be looking. But if you're looking for a fix of the usual Sonoran suspects, you can do a lot worse in this town.

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Howard Seftel