MEX SURROGATE

Chevys, 2650 East Camelback, Phoenix, 955-6677. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

On Wall Street, they're called analysts. At the racetrack, they're called touts. In the business world, they're called consultants. They're all people who claim they can make money by reading the future. Faith Popcorn is a high-profile, self-promoting futurologist who makes a living telling corporate America what trends are coming. She's the one who identified the '90s lust for "cocooning." That's what stressed-out folks supposedly do after their daily, 9-to-5 battles in the working world. Cocooners want good eats and entertainment, but they're reluctant to take nighttime jaunts into the urban jungle to find them. Instead, they prefer to sit in the safety and security of their own living rooms, munching gourmet takeout and watching a laser-disc movie on big-screen television. Popcorn hauled out her crystal ball again a few months ago, when she spoke to a national food group about a new dining trend. What did the swami see?

"People are looking for excitement, but they don't want any risk," she told them. "They want to travel to Africa via virtual reality." What Americans are now longing for, she concluded, is "safe adventure." Savvy restaurateurs should be able to ride the "safe adventure" wave to big profit, she predicted, because "this trend has definitely impacted the food that people eat." How? Just look at two new restaurants along the trendy Camelback corridor, Chevys and Pico Pica Tacos. Each features Mexican food, but that's not what they're really selling.

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Chevy's Fresh Mex

2650 E. Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: East Phoenix

Read their menus. The cover of Chevys' menu highlights in bold red lettering words like "whole wheat," "fresh fruit," "cholesterol-free" and "handmade." No doubt anxiety-filled diners are also comforted by assurances that the kitchen cheerfully welcomes requests to "leave off," "go easy on" or "put on the side" whatever might upset them to swallow. Same at Pico Pica Tacos. It, too, trumpets qualities like "handmade," "no cholesterol" and "all fresh, all natural." Its rice, we learn, is "nutritious," its vegetables are a "vitamin source" and the meat "cut extra lean for less fat." Yes, behold the perfect fare for the risk-free '90s--safe Mex. Chevys is not exactly a mom-and-pop operation. It's a chain, part of PepsiCo, the same multinational, multibillion-dollar cola conglomerate that also owns such gourmet palaces as Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken. You can be sure that Chevys' safe-Mex concept was thoroughly thought out by teams of accountants, decorators and marketers long before it opened. But you can't say PepsiCo isn't giving people what they want. Gushing reviews from around the country, including one from the local daily, attest to it. So do the crowds. I guess people are attracted to the festive south-of-the-border atmosphere--rough wood ceiling, a tortilla machine, waitresses in Mexican blouses, stacks of Corona beer boxes. Chevys is Mexico without Mexicans--the ultimate in safe adventure. Chevys also features annoying balloon people who pester families with their twisted creations. Personally, I'd rather be accosted by a guy with a folding table and a deck of cards offering a game of three-card monte. Nor can you escape shtick like staff-sung happy-birthday sing-alongs, a practice that ought to be made a violation of the municipal code. The food? As you might expect, it's harmless enough, bleached of just enough character to make it palatable to the Pepsi generation. Check out the chips. They're wonderfully fresh, but way too thin and insubstantial. If chips don't furnish visceral munching pleasure, who cares if they're cooked in "cholesterol-free canola oil"? Same with the salsa. If it's mushy and bland, does it matter that it's "blended hourly from freshly charred tomatoes, onions and jalape¤os"?

Most of the other offerings suffer from too much good-for-you freshness and too little flavor. The scallop ceviche appetizer, for example, sports a hint of lime, but almost nothing in the way of onions, tomato or cilantro. Main dishes are just as lackluster. The combo fajita platter came without any grilled sizzling onions or peppers, a grievous fault that even warm, fresh tortillas couldn't rectify. And though the beef, chicken and shrimp didn't have much sparkle, they sure beat the dangerously bony quail. I don't know what quail fajitas are doing on this menu in the first place, but I'd bet they won't be here long. The usual Sonoran snoozers run the gamut of taste from A to B. Pork tamales may be "handmade each morning," but handmade is not necessarily a synonym for quality. The beef taco here has no more flair than its Taco Bell cousin. And the chile relleno comes topped with an odd, Italian-type tomato sauce that may have been misdelivered by a Pizza Hut supplier. Only the enchiladas, zipped up with green onions, had some oomph. The same scallions perked up the side dish of rice. But nothing could bring Chevys' beans to life. Beans … la charra, purportedly seasoned with bacon, and vegetarian beans each registered absolute zero on the flavor scale. After a wholesome Mexican meal, management knows most people can't resist rewarding themselves with a dessert. So you can splurge on ice cream rolled in coconut topped with caramel sauce, or nibble at some mediocre flan. But if you're determined to pack on dessert calories, why do it here? Walk over to RoxSand or Christopher's Bistro just down the street and do it right. Utterly bland and boring, Chevys' corporate Mexican food is aimed right at fearful McMiddle Americans longing for safe dining adventure. What Chevys could use is a little less American concept and a lot more Mexican lard.

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