By Heather Hoch
By Eric Schaefer
By New Times
By Rachel Miller
By Eric Schaefer
By Heather Hoch and Lauren Saria
By Robrt L. Pela
By Heather Hoch
I'm a Dan Quayle, family-oriented sort of guy.
Our family bond is tight, our values firm. My wife and I both agree, for example, that we should unplug the bathroom margarita blender while the kids are bathing.
Now it's holiday time, and we want to accommodate the little darlings' desire to eat out.
But setting foot in fast-food joints goes against our most deeply held values. These McRestaurants have all the festive eating-out appeal of a Serbian detention camp. They're hardly a bargain anymore, either. And even if by some miracle you're entitled to change back from a $20 bill, the pimply adolescents behind the counter can't figure it out. At the same time, though, there's no family value in bringing kids to a nice place and shelling out 12 bucks for entrees that these burger-and-spaghetti lovers wouldn't touch with a pitchfork.
So, in an orgy of family-dining togetherness unrivaled since the last Manson-household Thanksgiving dinner, we hauled our squabbling brood to three Valley restaurants that promised to meet my exacting criteria: They welcome kids, serve adult and kid fare, and cost no more than $40 for four.
First stop, CasseRoley's, a new Scottsdale restaurant that we reached as a nuclear family of four only because my car lacks a rear-seat-ejection button.
CasseRoley's features casseroles, a separate kids' video room and the oddest family-restaurant feel I've ever encountered. It looks like it could have been furnished by Gilbert Ortega. Southwestern prints, kachina dolls and big clay pots line the walls. Along with the adult and kid menus, the waiter also dropped off a wine list. That explained the wine buckets sprinkled around the room, and the poster behind our table, a framed guide to all the labels of Mouton-Rothschild. Unsure as to what wine best complements tuna-noodle casserole (Chateau Star-Kist, 1982?), we settled on soft drinks.
A pleasant batch of blueberry muffins and a tape of Natalie Cole singing her father's greatest hits occupied us while the kids ran off to the video room. (CasseRoley's gives kids one free game.) With unerring instinct, the kids ran out of quarters just as the food arrived.
Meals come with soup or salad. The day's potato-leek soup, seasoned with a bay leaf, was a smooth, flavorful concoction. For an additional 50 cents, you can substitute seafood chowder, and it's worth it. The chowder's thick and creamy, and apparently enlivened with a dollop of sherry. The kids wiped their small cups clean. Diners opting for the salad can rescue it by choosing the excellent sweet-and-sour poppy-seed dressing.
One daughter refused to have anything to do with the house specialty, preferring the kid menu's $3.50 plate of macaroni and cheese with grilled hot dog. But the rest of us plunged into the casseroles.
Beef stew had a homemade touch, with some tender chunks of meat and a beefy-flavored gravy. But it was awfully miserly with the veggies--two buttermilk biscuits took up most of the platter space.
A thick and rich tuna casserole came with pasta shells, seasoned with dill and onions. Four big potato chips were wedged in it, looking like junk-food Stonehenge monuments. But even with some accompanying garlic toast, this small dish couldn't fill up an undersize druid.
The chicken pot pie, a bowl of chicken and vegetables with a puff-pastry crust, was kid-approved for taste. But this portion, too, was small--certainly not enough to cut the appetite of my growing 12-year-old.
We ordered desserts to fill in the cracks, reaching our $40 limit. Ice-cream-topped brownies tasted like nothing special to me, but the hungry kids ignored my critical judgment and devoured them. The homemade flan, in a pleasing caramel sauce, better suited our adult sensibilities. CasseRoley's is well-intentioned, with the germ of a good idea for family dining. The food's tasty. Let's have some more of it. Red Robin, 5830 West Bell Road, Glendale, 978-3828. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Next stop, Red Robin, a fast-growing California chain with several Valley locations. Well aware of surveys that show kids have a major say in determining where families dine, Red Robin tries to appeal to them. It offers utterly familiar food, large portions on the $2.99 kids' menu, free soft-drink refills and pernicious and expensive nonalcoholic "mocktails" that parents can veto only after an exhausting contest of wills. While waiting for our appetizer, we entertained the girls by inspecting the restaurant's poster collection, which looks like it wiped out the inventory of several Valley street-corner vendors. Every clichd favorite is here: the Edward Hopper rip-off showing James Dean, Elvis and Bogart in a coffee shop; Marilyn Monroe standing on a grate; Mona Lisa munching a burger.
When they lost interest in art, the kids told us the titles of the piped-in Top 40 hits, whose blare I could not escape even in the rest room. Red Robin is the kind of place where "ranch dressing" seems to show up everywhere except the hot-fudge sundae. Our appetizer--the "King Kombo Platter"--was typical. It ought to have come with a coupon for a discount cardiogram.
Just about everything was breaded and fried, except the lettuce garnish. Zucchini slices, mozzarella sticks and chicken wedges were almost indistinguishable. Crosshatched fries had no discernible potato flavor, and stuffed potato skins seemed mutantly tiny. Cups of marinara sauce and sour cream accompanied the ranch dressing. The main-dish fare pleased the kids a lot more than it appealed to us. My 9-year-old lapped up the kid-menu spaghetti, doused in a bland tomato sauce sprinkled with cheese. Her older sister downed a reasonably juicy bacon burger and thick-cut fries without hesitation.
Our adult dishes, though, had the air of corporate calculation, not culinary inspiration. The chicken milano came looking exactly like its picture on the table-top promo card: three stalks of broccoli, three wedges of tomato, three artichoke hearts, sliced breast of chicken and a pile of noodles topped with slivered olives in a heavy cream sauce. It's a triumph of franchising quality control, not taste.
My wife's barbecue-chicken salad didn't work at all. What looked like the exact same sliced-chicken hunk that appeared in chicken milano, but covered with barbecue sauce, rested on a bunch of lettuce, surrounded by tasteless, grated yellow cheese and warm ranch beans--a bizarre mixture of temperatures, textures and flavors. Desserts were all show, and not worth the dough. Mud pie featured a mountain of inferior vanilla and chocolate ice cream with hot-fudge sauce and a peanut butter topping. The carrot cake was numbingly sweet and oily enough to lube the car.
Red Robin's all concept, no substance, a perfect American metaphor. It will probably make a mint. My advice: Skip the food and buy the stock. Spaghetti Vendors, 402 East Greenway Parkway, Phoenix, 548-8155. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.
The prospect of pasta coaxed the kids out the next evening. We headed to Spaghetti Vendors, a Valley franchise headed by the sons of Mama Celeste, of frozen-pizza fame.
The north Valley branch, tucked away in a cavernous shopping center, is certainly unprepossessing. It's done up in Italian-flag motif: red, white and green. From the parking lot, the bright lighting and blindingly white walls and ceiling give it the look of a storefront operating room. Stacked white lawn chairs don't help. Hanging baskets of artificial red carnations and a few pasta-oriented posters furnish some of the few splashes of color.
Here, you order and pay at the counter in the back. Then you get a number to place on the table, and wait for the server to bring the food.
Parents hoping to encourage balanced nutrition should get the Italian salad, a plenty-for-two bowl of greens, tomato, salami, pepperoni, olives and peperoncini. Put it in front of the kids, as we did. Then, when they refuse to touch it, you can have it all to yourselves.
The kids preferred to fill up on garlic bread, a chewy loaf that had less garlic than Wonder bread and not much more cheese. But the attractions here are the pasta and sauces, made fresh daily at a central kitchen in Scottsdale that serves the Valley chain. Like an old Chinese-restaurant menu, the menu board asks you to choose a pasta from column A--seven varieties, some also available in spinach and whole-wheat forms--and a sauce from column B. There's also filled pasta, like ravioli and manicotti.
And most of it's pretty darned good. Particularly appealing was spinach fettuccine, swimming in a rich pesto sauce dripping with garlic and olive oil. I'd like to find out who supplies the clams that appeared in my daughter's linguini and white clam sauce; they're the tenderest I've had in a while. Too bad there wasn't enough garlic.
Like everything else, the platter of ricotta-and-spinach-stuffed pasta shells contained a man-size portion. It's covered with mozzarella and a nondescript tomato sauce and baked. Nothing fancy, but reasonably priced, tasty enough and substantial.
The huge hunk of lasagna, though, lacked zip. It would fill up a lumberjack, but the ingredients were mushy and flavorless.
For pasta-loving families, Spaghetti Vendors is a good alternative to McFood. And cheer up: School reopens January 4.