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Best New Restaurant

Cottonwood Café
60 N. Alvernon Way

READERS' PICK: This newcomer, 60 N. Alvernon Way, occupies the corner of Broadway and Alvernon that most Tucsonans associate with the Lunt Avenue Marble Club. But no one will mistake the Cottonwood Café for the pub-like Lunt Avenue. A complete renovation of the building has made the restaurant an architect's showplace: The straw-bale exterior wall, rammed-earth interior, cozy bar with a double-sided fireplace, and the large patio and intimate dining areas have all been crafted with great attention to detail. And the food served within carries on the precedent. The Cottonwood bills its menu as "native Southwestern cuisine," which leaves us wondering where the Anasazi got their beef, chicken and shrimp. We'll leave questions of authenticity to the experts, and just indulge in this tasty and eclectic menu.

The Snakebite appetizers revive the jalapeño popper concept by splitting the pepper and wedging a large, Guaymas shrimp inside. Entrees revolve around smoky chipotle peppers, spicy serranos and various exotic sauces, skillfully combing sweet fruit flavors with hints of pepper. The recent pork-tenderloin special featured an array of perfectly cooked pork slices in a dark plum and chipotle sauce. The menu usually includes a vegetarian special. We sampled an enormous plate of grilled vegetables, including portabello mushrooms and exquisite, tiny asparagus. Even the meat eaters in our party appreciated the Shaman's Pouch, grilled eggplant and assorted veggies in a baked pastry. During the post-prandial lull we noticed almost a quarter of the building didn't seem to be in use. A waiter told us the old Lunt's disco was behind the wall, untouched by renovation. Future plans for a '70s revival restaurant? Don't even tell us.

RUNNER-UP AND STAFF PICK: The menu at Zemam's, a cozy, charming Ethiopian restaurant in a converted house at 2131 E. Broadway, details the eat-with-your-hands communal concept central to enjoying this Horn of Africa cuisine. Western white folk--with their utensils, napkins, and "pass the peas, please"--are in the global minority. The food here comes piled on a common platter and is consumed via the ubiquitous Injera, a thin, soft, spongy bread that serves as knife, fork, and napkin. Definitely not for the uptight or germ-conscious.

But what food! Though certainly not fiery by hardcore Southwest standards, Ethiopian cooking seems to be a combo of African, Indian sub-continent, and Arabic influences. The zigni and yebeg wat are spicy beef and lamb strip meals, while vegetable dishes like shiro, a pureed chick pea concoction, and yetakelt wat, a potato-and-vegetable dish, provide some more mild alternatives. The Zemam's Plate, easily a meal for two, is a sampler of any three menu items. No beer or wine yet, but they'll gladly let you bring your own.

From the land of Jah, owner/operator Amanuel Gebremarium has a keeper here; the best and most unique new restaurant to hit the Old Pueblo in years.

A PERFECT 10: Okay, we know the red tuxedo shirts and black bow ties the servers are wearing are a bit much, and the jukebox blare from the bar can be a tad overwhelming; but we can't help but gush over the quality of the food for the price at Mexico City, 4915 E. Speedway, one of Tucson's newest stars on the Mexican food dining scene. Servings here border on excessive and, even if there's an extra plate charge, it still seems the better part of valor at times to share. Take for example the vegetable enchilada platter, three gargantuan rolled corn tortilla delights. Even the heartiest of appetites will find it a challenge to clean their plates. In addition, Mexico City offers a children's menu that allows even families on a tight budget to feed everyone in the clan without breaking the bank. Specials of the day consistently surprise, especially the fresh fish catches, which, crazy as it may sound, taste as though they were hooked from the briny deep only a few hours before you ordered them. This is a great, no-frills family restaurant with something for everyone.

Case History

1998 Winner: Nonie Restaurant
1997 Winner: Firecracker
1995 Winner: City Grill

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