The old F. Scott Fitzgerald line that there are no second acts in American lives has long since been debunked – it’s sometimes even untrue in the tough and unforgiving restaurant business. Exhibit A: this 48-year-old Mexican favorite, which called 19th Avenue home until migrating one mile east in 2015. It also claims to be “the home of the chimichanga.” Whether that’s true or not, La Piñata is indeed stuffed with goodies, in what they refer to as “dynamic portions” – i.e. absurdly huge – that will leave you stuffed and/or equipped with leftovers for days. Try the simple cheese crisp with green chiles ($8.95) for a winning starter. You won’t need an appetizer if you order the Mexican Short Stack ($13.25) which gloriously layers ground beef, chicken or machaca between three corn tortillas with cheese and sauce. Slightly less ambitious is the “There’s a Taco in My Burro” burrito ($6.95), in which your favorite taco cast members – ground beef, lettuce, cheese, tomato, etc. – are recast in a big flour tortilla. All the deliciousness without the pesky shell.
Must try: You really shouldn’t miss the “Chimi Changa” ($10.95), dubiously described as “The Mexican Version of the Banana Split!” Original to the place or not, it’s about as good as this deep-fried monster gets.
5521 N. Seventh Ave.
“Kyoto Is Back!” crows a sign in the window. Shuttered in 2015 when the original owners retired, this three-decade-old sushi and teppanyaki emporium has returned with a former bartender at the helm, tile instead of carpet, an updated bar serving some 11 varieties of sake, and a few minor but elegant improvements to the décor. The food is elegant, too, despite some confusion in the service on my visit – the dynamite scallops appetizer ($8) arrived long after my sautéed shrimp bento entree ($9; all lunchtime prices). It’s a credit to both dishes that the belated appetizer, with its tender scallops in lusciously creamy sauce, was still appetizing even after a full meal. The bento was great, too, with juicy sliced mushrooms and crisp, deftly cooked veggies. For something interesting off the sushi menu, try the inari roll ($4), with sweet bean curd enclosing the rice, instead of the other way around.
Must try: Herbivores are nicely served by the sautéed vegetables and tofu ($8) with a variety of sauce options; I enjoyed the teriyaki.
7170 E. Stetson Dr.
Once upon a time, some of the better Vietnamese eats in the Valley were served downstairs from the United Artists movie theater at Chris-Town Mall. That part of the mall doesn’t exist anymore, but the cuisine carries on, in a far more charming setting – a converted mid-century home in downtown Glendale. If you’re looking for a Vietnamese menu that goes a little deeper than the standard Top 40 hits, this is your place. Not that you can’t get a fine, steamy bowl of pho here, but why not start off with goi cuon chay (tofu-packed vegetarian spring rolls, $6) or banh xep (pork pot stickers, $5) or banh xeo ($5), a crumbly, browned, rice flour crêpe folded over shrimp, pork and sprouts? If you aren’t in the mood for soup, try the pho ap chao ($10), with beef, pork, chicken and vegetables stir-fried to perfection over clumps of fried flat noodles–richness and crispness in beautiful balance.
Must try: The chem chep xoa la que ($10) are green mussels flying nearly solo, accompanied only by onions and greens in a simple, savory, gravy-like sauce. Get a side of white rice to nestle them on.
7016 N. 57th Ave., Glendale
Founded in 1973, the familiar Tempe watering hole Minder Binder – was it named, I’ve always wondered, after Catch-22’s entrepreneurial Milo Minderbinder? – originally looked like a big red barn. Closed for years, it pupated in 2015 into a Spanish-style mission façade, complete with a bell arch. Inside, it’s still a pleasantly dim tavern, walls cluttered with vintage ad art and framed MAD Magazine covers. Make no mistake: This is still pub grub. But it’s pub grub done well and generously, much of it in batter like God intended, from the fish and starchy, plank-like chips ($12.99) to far-from-shrimpy panko shrimp ($12.99) to beguiling fried pickles ($5.99). Burgers include the expansive, charmingly named Thunder Humper ($12.99), served open-faced under a blanket of savory chili. Hearty eats, but pray you have time for a siesta.
Must try: My server assured me the Jiffy Burger ($11.99), with cheddar, bacon and JIF peanut butter, was the bomb. She was right.
715 S. McClintock Dr., Tempe
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