Cafe Reviews

Working Girl Blahs

Her eyes are glowing brightly, the way they always do after that third glass of Merlot. It's a brilliant, giddy look of edges erased, a realization that the craziness of another workweek will be survived. I drink in her expression as deeply and gladly as the Sauvignon Blanc I'm sipping — this is the best part of life, slowing down for a cocktail and a visit with good friends. That we're at one of the best restaurants in town, being catered to by an impossibly attentive staff, makes this midweek happy hour that much more decadent.

"I'm hungry," she announces, grinning, almost goofy in her eagerness to see more of the Valley's chic spots. "You know all the best places. Where should we go next?"

Oh yes, I am soooo cool. I know all the terrific places in the Valley to eat, drink, play and taste every inch of a thrilling life of debauchery. Whether it be to a casual bistro, top restaurant, funky supper club or ethnic outpost, I can steer the pickiest fine-dining connoisseur or particular partyer in the right direction.

Of course I can. It's my job. And for this adventure, on a Tuesday of all days, I'm leading my group on a minitour of fun places for a snack and a sip. I almost feel guilty as we move from one cool cafe to the next. Surely my friends are scoffing, this is how I spend my days and nights, with the audacity to complain that sometimes, I feel so overworked? (And sometimes so completely bored.)

In reality, we've been at it since noon, starting with a "creative inspiration" meeting at Dick's Hideaway in central Phoenix. The pretense is to fashion our own little Algonquin Round Table of sorts and come up with new, fresh ideas. We've chosen Dick's because it's so hip — an unadvertised adjunct of the much-revered Richardson's at 16th Street and Bethany Home. And because it has a very private dining room, hidden behind a secret door at the bar, lavish with a long copper-topped table, walls stacked floor-to-ceiling with wine racks, and a cozy bunk plump with pillows under the ceiling in case we feel the need to nap.

Next up, after a lunch of salad (way above average, rich with shredded cheeses and creamy dressing good enough to eat straight), a choice of entree (my green chile stew is gorgeous, a fiery brew stocked with beef tenderloin, potatoes, carrots and melted Cheddar) and lots of wine, we'll be hitting a few more favorite nearby spots.

It looks to be a glamorous life, trolling from hip spot to hipper spot 24/7, mingling with the beautiful people. By virtue of my job, I of course invite an entourage, eager to be hangers-on for the sophisticated existence in which I indulge. It's inevitable that the friends I leave out from such adventures simmer, feeling quietly scorned. To them, my life is nothing but Tuesdays.

Hmm. It ain't a bad life, I've got to agree with my pals today, not by a far stretch, not as we stop in for a tall beer at my favorite chicken-fried-steak saloon Texaz Grill, sample Eddie Matney's newest hors d'oeuvres in his funky Moroccan lounge, or nibble on charcuterie and yet more wine at Christopher's Fermier. (Bonus: Check out Eddie's complimentary buffet and $3 wines at happy hour on Tuesday.)

Yet this Tuesday also is not reality, certainly not an everyday assignment. New restaurants open all the time, favored restaurants close all the time, and readers don't always want to hear about the best, just about the latest. Yes, of course, I've delivered — in print — a crash course on where to get my favorite fish, that perfect ahi, but readers are quickly bored with such information. Because who, in this trendy world, wants to eat in a place that they've already heard about?

Me. Because once I find a place that's amazing, that offers a guarantee of a good time, great food and lots of fun, I rarely get to go back. It's my job not to. Instead, I'm constantly trawling the streets for what's just opened, what's unique, what's worth spending hard-earned money on. I rarely get the time for luxuries like spending this Tuesday with friends at my beloved haunts.

Most of my life is a Wednesday. Like the one I'm spending at the just-okay Cafe Santa Fe, having voyaged far from my home in north Scottsdale to deepest, darkest Chandler. Hatch chiles are in abundance here, hot and arrogant with personality, and the chiles are beautiful. Even with the chiles, though, there's little reason to return.

For New Mexican cuisine I know is exciting, I could have stayed much closer to home, draping my happy body over Richardson's complex chimayo chicken (stuffed with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, poblano and Asiago) or Carlsbad Tavern's Enchantment Platter (carne adovada burrito, chicken enchilada and chile relleno with a sopaipilla, and red and green chile sauce). Even Blue Adobe Grill in Mesa is a shorter jaunt, where I can count on a comforting Taos combo, uniting a honey pork tamale, tenderloin relleno, shrimp enchilada, rice and beans, plus red or green chile.

But I'm also grateful, this Wednesday, that this is my job. Because it's not my money paying the tab for the meal, a thoroughly average rendition of classic New Mexican cuisine. I'm adventurous. I always want to see and try new things. Yet who has the cash to inspect every potential place that might — or might not be — a treasured-Tuesday kind of thrill?

I'd stopped in days before and was mildly impressed with a paint-consistency guacamole nicely bloomed with hot yellow peppers. Chips were fine, sludged in fiery orangish-red salsa purée. A tamale plate was okay, too, a special-request combo of one pork in red chile and one chicken in green chile bundle. Good, gum-searing chile, but the masa was wet and mushy, with too meager meaty filling. I left feeling flat, glad that I'd come for a solo tasting.

Now, on Wednesday night, I've brought a buddy, but I'm feeling flatter. I ply her with wine, but there's no sparkle in this woman's eyes. The conversation is merely polite as we trade forkfuls of a breakfast dish, chorizo and eggs. It's making me as sleepy as if it were 8 a.m., this chorizo that could well be spicy hamburger, bloated with cheese and paired with nicely soupy beans and pan-fried potatoes, yet hardly better than what I could make at home.

One Algonquin pal had ordered Richardson's posole at our Tuesday lunch, and she was so happy she giggled over the soup bowl of hominy, pork and red chile broth ladled over a flour tortilla. I merely go through the motions with my Cafe Santa Fe posole — the hominy is almost crunchy, the pork cut in too-big, too-firm chunks, and, until a side of red chile is stirred in, the thin broth is one-dimensional oregano.

It's usually too quiet in Wednesday kinds of places, understandable since my job is to discover what no one else has. Still, it would take a lot of energy to fill this strip mall shop, looking like a tiny converted sports bar with mirrored walls, disco lighting on the ceilings, teal lounge furniture and a big screen showing sitcoms.

For more successful dishes like the Cafe's green chile casserole, a satisfying layering of corn tortillas, cheeses, and a creamy blend of chile and shredded chicken, the journey might be worth the effort.

The effort of coming back, yes, perhaps on a Wednesday, but certainly not on a Tuesday.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet