H.O.T. House of Tacos; Photography by Delia Johnson

Hidden Gems

Written by M.V. Moorhead Category: Food Reviews Issue: March 2018
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How much stock can you put in a Yelp review? Our reviewer visited these lesser-known four- and five-star eateries to find out.

Funny name, cool concept: For 10 bucks, you get a lunch of 600 calories or less in a segmented plastic bento-style box, served in a spare but sunny dining room with reading material on the tables. (I reread the Dr. Seuss masterpiece Yertle the Turtle with my lunch.) Keep the box, wash it and bring it back, and they knock 50 cents off your next check. Three combos are offered daily on an alternating schedule – one vegan, one vegetarian and one with meat. One day, you might try The Alchemist (veg), a savory chickpea stew with Manchego cheese, cashews, couscous and bread; or the even yummier Hawker (vegan), with curried lentils and panang coconut milk over rice with carrot salad and green beans in a tangy sauce. If you want to go full carnivore, try the Urban Cowboy – turkey chili with corn, bacon and bread. “Dessert” is the tastybox weak spot – in each of the above, it comes in the form of a cut-up orange.

Must try: Wash it all down with a house-made chai ($3.75) from Street Coffee next door, which is under the same ownership.
621 N. Seventh St.
602-535-8772, tastybox.net

West Valley
Chennai Café
“Chennai” refers to the city formerly known (to Westerners, at least) as Madras, the capital of Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state of India. The name turns up in no fewer than four restaurants around the Valley, but don’t let this friendly Bell Road spot get lost in the shuffle. As it happened, I managed to time my visit to the middle of India’s annual Pongal festival, meaning only the lunch buffet ($9.99 on weekdays, $10.99 on weekends) was available. But this held treasures enough: savory ennai kathirikkai (eggplant), goat curry, Malabar fish (scrumptious, but loaded with bones) and nattu kozhi (Cornish hen in onions), among others, all piled on naan and uthappam pancakes. I went back for seconds of the pongal – the rice dish, not the festival – a sort of Indian cousin to risotto or congee. On a later, post-Pongal visit, I was able to try some entrees: delicate parotta bread served with spicy mutton kurna stew ($12.99), and splendid aloo gobi ($8.99), a heartier, less spicy vegetable stew of potatoes, cauliflower and tomatoes.

Must try: Surprise, surprise, my Scots-Irish palate responded most agreeably to the chicken tikka masala in a blessedly mild gravy.
5775 W. Bell Rd., Glendale
602-843-0087, chennaicafeaz.com

Famous 48
There’s something off-putting about the name of this Old Town spot, a “nod to the USA’s lower 48 states.” (Unnervingly, it’s subtitled a “Real American Tavern.”) I doubt there was a deliberate attempt to snub Alaska and Hawaii, but it still seems sort of like a Mean Girls party non-invite. Whatever, there’s some good grub on the menu of this bustling sports bar from Square One Concepts, the gang behind Cold Beers & Cheeseburgers and the late Crab & Mermaid. Start with the deviled eggs appetizer ($8) topped with bacon and nippy jalapeños. The burger ($16) delivers on its forthright name, dressing a thick, seriously beefy short rib-brisket-chuck patty with your basic bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles on a gleaming challah bun. The teriyaki chicken ($15) comes with a house-made, not-too-sweet sauce with cilantro-lime rice and broccoli. The fish and chips ($15), which wraps four pieces of cod in an umber-ish, possibly overcooked batter with fries and not-too-flavorful slaw, was less successful, but the house-made key lime pie ($8), with its fine balance of sweet and tart, made up for the lapse.

Must try: The waffle mac and cheese ($12), macaroni and a rich three-cheese blend cooked in a waffle maker, is the sort of thing you could only get in America. All 50 states of it.
4218 N. Scottsdale Rd., 480-758-4994, famous48.com

East Valley
H.O.T. House of Tacos (pictured)
The initials at the beginning of the name could just as easily stand for House of Tequila, as the drink menu at this unobtrusive Mill Avenue joint is just as extensive and diverse as the food menu. But the atmosphere is so relaxed and pleasant – with rows of colorful Mexican soft-drink bottles as a festive design element – and the food so wolf-able and inexpensive that the place is worth a Mill excursion even if you don’t drink as the college kids do. There’s a nice variety of street tacos, ranging from the rasurado (ribs; $3) to a delicious, mild, cabbage-strewn fish taco ($2.50) to the “taco hash” ($3.50), combining carne asada and chiles with asadero cheese. All of the street taco meats are also available by the half-pound ($10-$12) or the pound ($17-$30), accompanied by corn or flour tortillas.

Must try: Both in flavor and in volume, the tacos are quick, light bites, while the carne asada fries ($9) a heap of meat and sour cream on thin, crispy pommes frites, are a luxurious and indulgent treat.
740 S. Mill Ave., Tempe, 480-588-6451, house-of-tacos.business.site

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