Chain Action

Cozymel's, 7373 East Shea, Scottsdale, 5962150. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Stick a compass point at the intersection of Scottsdale Road and Shea Boulevard. From that center spot, draw a circle with a radius of two miles.

Just 15 years ago, the 12.56 miles of real estate inside that circle would have been mostly empty, except for scrub, sand and saguaros.

Today, it's a different story. These days, this is prime northeast Valley landscape, a booming, upscale, densely populated area almost completely filled with expensive homes and massive commercial development.

You'd think this kind of high-end, high-traffic growth would attract sophisticated restaurants to this section of town. And, yes, a few have made their way here: Marco Polo Cafe, La Locanda, a second branch of Such Is Life, a third branch of Hops! Bistro and Brewery and the new Razz's seem to be operating successfully.

But nobody's likely to describe the neighborhood as gourmet gulch. That's because within the last year, spreading as stealthily and as swiftly as the Ebola virus, almost every restaurant chain in the Milky Way has gotten a branch up and running in the area.

I took a short tour down just a few streets and jotted down some of the names I spotted: Romano's Macaroni Grill, Grady's American Grill, Red Robin, Ruby Tuesday, California Pizza Kitchen, Coco's, Perkins, Village Inn, Chili's, Applebee's. (I didn't even bother noting the fast-food and sandwich franchises.)

Obviously, these chains are offering people what they want--every time I drive past, the parking lots are full. So I visited two of the most popular ones, Cozymel's and Mimi's Cafe, to try to figure out just what the attraction was.

At Cozymel's ("A Very Mexican Grill"), the setting is probably one of the people-pleasing lures. The place is designed to look like an idealized mercado--there's even a gift shop offering Mexican tourist knickknacks such as Day of the Dead figures and pinatas--to help separate you from your nondining dollars.

The dining room, spic-and-span clean, features these touches: crates of colorful produce, sacks of beans and rices, a burlap potato-bag ceiling and shelves lined with cans and bottles. Diners can amuse themselves looking at tortilla-making equipment, chickens rotating on a spit and margarita machines spinning their slushy refreshment. Tables covered with oilcloth send a casual message, while the cloth napkins inject a comforting note of class.

The high level of service may also induce first-time visitors to become repeat customers. Whenever our chips or salsa was low, the first employee to notice it--busboy, server, manager--quickly brought more. Our water glasses never dropped below half-full. The workers all smiled and asked us if everything was okay. (It's amazing how your mood improves when people treat you nicely, something you'd think all restaurant operators would have figured out by now.) The only sour note: a wandering "balloonologist" who, for a price, will entertain your table by twisting balloons into various shapes. I guess some folks enjoy this, but I find it faintly embarrassing.

What about the food? Cozymel's operators probably don't have a difficult time putting overtheir Mexican dishes in distant, far-from-the-border locations, such as their Tennessee or Florida branches. But you'd think that here in the Sonoran Southwest, we natives might be a little fussier and harder to please.

Apparently, we're not. How else could the kitchen get away with a ceviche appetizer consisting of cooked shrimp and tuna? Zipped up with a bit of cilantro, red onion and lime, this seafood is pleasant enough, but it's about as Mexican as Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. But no doubt the ceviche is just as Mexican as the diners here want it to be.

The same goes for the Mexican fondue starter. It's melted white cheese studded with shrimp and embellished with a zingy dollop of cilantro pesto. Served with two types of steaming tortillas (plain flour and an off-putting cinnamon model), the fondue strives to meet the test of taste rather than the test of authenticity. And, to its credit, it does.

Many main dishes seem to follow a pattern: The kitchen takes a quality piece of beef, pork, chicken or fish, gives it a Spanish name and surrounds it with some vaguely Mexican touches.

That's certainly the case with lomo de puerco, 12 exceptionally tender ounces of slow-cooked pork roast that's good enough to have come from Havana Patio Cafe. It's accompanied by something called "Yucat‡n rice" (although I have no idea what gives these grains any Yucat‡n character) and routine black beans.

It's also true of Salmon Tropical, a house specialty and, at $12.99, the most expensive itemon the menu. It's a beautiful salmon fillet, expertly grilled tomoist, flaky specifications. Unfortunately, it's coated with a wretched "Cancun" sauce that blends cilantro, serrano chile and honey into a Cuisinarted pulp. It suits salmon about the same way ketchup would. This fish would have been better off left alone.

Beef fajitas, on the other hand, are just right. Cozymel's dishes out a half-pound of terrific, juicy, grilled skirt steak that's soft enough to gum. But the ho-hum plate of guacamole, pico de gallo and sour cream that's supposed to gild this platter doesn't merit even a second glance.

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