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Richardson's, 1582 East Bethany Home, Phoenix, 265-5886. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight.
A couple of visits to Richardson's have left me in a schizophrenic funk. The New Mexican-style offerings are exceptional. The kitchen's regional range encompasses everything from outstanding Sonoran staples (tamales, enchiladas, burritos) to sublime, chile-scented grilled pork and chicken specialties fragrant with the aroma of the Southwest. This is food with flair, the kind you literally lick your lips anticipating as dinnertime approaches. So what's my problem? I love Richardson's fare. I just don't enjoy eating it at Richardson's.
455 N. Third St.
Phoenix, AZ 85004
Region: Central Phoenix
The place seems designed to squelch every pleasure associated with fine dining. Or even civilized dining. It starts as soon as you walk in. Nobody greets customers at the door. After I spend several anxious minutes vainly trying to spot someone who might be a host or hostess, all of the latent insecurities that I've suppressed since high school come bubbling up. A guy hoping to impress a date here will mostly impress her with the fact that management thinks he's a nobody. The place is unbelievably jammed. Even on midweek nights, a couple should expect to wait about an hour during prime dining hours once it grabs the frazzled hostess's attention. That's because Richardson's has only a dozen tables ringing the perimeter. This is the kind of place Yogi Berra must have had in mind when he remarked about one popular restaurant: "Nobody goes there anymore because it's too crowded." You'll eventually be directed to the buzzing, U-shaped bar area that dominates the room. It's smoky. It's loud. Watch the two television screens or groove on some pounding music. Don't plan on whispering sweet nothings in your baby's ear or discussing NAFTA's effect on the Arizona economy. To the crowds and noise, add darkness. Profound darkness. You'll need a miner's helmet lamp to see what's on your plate. Richardson's is illuminated by votive candles, a design feature much better suited to Gothic cathedrals and Pharaonic tombs. We poured wax on our appetizers trying to get a better look.
And once you're seated, don't expect a relaxed, leisurely meal.
Although service at the bar is spotty, it's ruthlessly swift at the table. And lingering over coffee is strongly discouraged. The menu warns you: "In consideration of others [i.e., the poor, patient souls expiring from hunger at the bar] and due to the limited capacity of the restaurant, we may request you to enjoy your after-dinner cocktails and such in the bar area." With so much working against it, Richardson's might seem like an easy place to cross off your list. But the food can't be dismissed so easily. It's wonderful, occasionally even dazzling. The appetizers furnish the first hint. The Southwestern skewers bring grilled beef, shrimp, peppers, onions and meaty mushrooms. The two skewers sit on a tortilla, bathed in a creamy, jalape¤o hollandaise sauce, alongside a ladleful of whole beans. The enormous empanada enfolds chunks of chicken and scallions. Either starter will seriously dent an appetite.
But the main dishes shine even more brightly. Chimayo chicken is gorgeous, a baked breast stuffed with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, asiago cheese and mild poblano chile, all zipped up with a mound of roasted onions. Pork chop chorizo is just as compelling. A thick, meltingly tender grilled chop comes slit, crammed with chorizo. A robust fruit chutney slathered on top provides a perfect finishing touch. Grilled green beans and a green chile filled with browned mashed potatoes round out the superb platters. The more familiar Mexican dishes sport flavors you won't encounter at too many neighborhood enchilada parlors.
The lively chile relleno is a thing of beauty, temptingly layered with pork and asiago cheese. The chicken burrito holds moist, substantial strips of chicken breast, not little pellets of indeterminate origin. The beef in the enchilada is butter-soft. A tantalizingly fragrant chile sauce drapes the steamy tamale. And the carne adovada features melt-in-your-mouth-quality pork simmered in attention-getting red chiles.
But for now, extolling the talents of Richardson's chef is a bit like lauding Dr. Jack Kevorkian's medical skills: When you take the setting into account, it's hard to work up too much enthusiasm about professional proficiency.