Serving Hard Time

Hard Rock Cafe, 2621 East Camelback, Phoenix, 956-3669. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight.

Today's multiple-choice quiz: Which statement best explains the phenomenal success of Hard Rock Cafe?

a) Hard Rock Cafe celebrates the accomplishments of the great musical artists of our time. At this shrine for true rock believers, devout fans may reverentially ponder the meaning of a Judas Priest outfit, complete with accessorizing chains, preserved under glass like the Shroud of Turin. Other worshipers may prefer to stand respectfully before Madonna's rhinestone bra, or to genuflect in front of a jacket that, it is believed, Elvis may once have tried on.

b) People connect with the "Save the Planet" theme. Hard Rock Cafe may be just a restaurant, but it's reassuring to know that the organization is committed to protecting whales and preserving the rain forests. The happy-hour menu is printed in vegetable inks on recycled paper. "Environmentally safe" hand dryers, which replace paper towels in the rest rooms, help preserve trees. And you can depend on it--you'll never find spotted owl or snail darter on any Hard Rock Cafe menu.

c) The souvenir shop gives ordinary folks an instant shot of self-esteem. Who wouldn't feel good walking around in a pair of boxer shorts ($12), a polo shirt ($30) or a biker jacket ($260), all embossed with the Hard Rock Cafe name and logo?

d) Diners adore the food. "Good old American cooking," says the menu, prepared with "no preservatives, additives, MSG, antioxidants, colorings or artificial anything." At last, we locals can rest easy, confident there's one place in town where we don't have to worry about colored Buffalo wings, MSG-enhanced tuna fish sandwiches, antioxidized burgers or unpreserved root beer floats.

e) No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

Unless you chose "e," you're probably going to need a large dose of anti-hype medication to keep from someday stepping into Hard Rock Cafe. My advice: If you feel the urge to visit this high-powered marketing concept aimed directly at the drooling Mcmasses, lie down until the feeling passes.

The agony starts as soon as you arrive. Hard Rock Cafe doesn't accept reservations. So, if you come here somewhere around a normal lunch or dinner hour, you can be sure of one thing: By the time your vibrating buzzer goes off, alerting you that your table is ready, it won't be a normal-length lunch or dinner hour. That's because this place has been built cleverly small, so it doesn't take that many customers to back up the seating time.

The agony continues once you're seated. Pounding, pulsating, high-volume rock--Aerosmith, Madonna, Offspring--perpetually spills from the music system. Conversation is impossible. Just thinking is difficult. Even the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi couldn't chant enough "Om"s to relax here. This isn't fun. This is pain.

However, the agony and pain you've experienced up to this point do serve a purpose--now you're prepared for the food. The menu crows about how everything from sauces to salad dressing is made from scratch. That's commendable, at least in theory. Unfortunately, the reality is that Hard Rock Cafe's fare still manages to range from wretched to mediocre. This is not a range to feel home on.

Take the appetizer basket of onion rings, which aren't at all to my liking. They're greasy, covered with a thin, unpleasant, oily batter. Tupelo-Style Chicken isn't much of an improvement--breaded and fried chicken fingers whose appeal is directly proportional to the time you've spent waiting for a table. The accompanying apricot dipping sauce, however, is a pleasing touch.

Hard Rock Cafe hasn't become a global phenomenon by pushing any culinary frontiers. If the place were named after the fare instead of the setting, it could be called "Joe's Diner." Expect burgers, salads and sandwiches, along with a sprinkling of beef, chicken and fish dishes.

Probably the best thing here is the steak sandwich, a decently tender piece of grilled, sliced tenderloin served on a crusty sourdough roll. The cafeteria-quality fries alongside, though, make me suspect that no one in this kitchen spent the morning peeling fresh spuds.

The barbecued chicken and ribs won't inspire cartwheels of joy, but they are serviceable enough to tamp hunger pangs. The somewhat scrawny bird comes marinated in lime, which furnishes a mild taste boost. The meaty ribs are aided by a sweet watermelon-barbecue sauce that has a noticeable follow-up zing. The routine burger, meanwhile, has no distinction whatsoever.

Don't look to the fajitas for any dining pleasure. The shrimp model features eight tasteless crustaceans, heaped on a lukewarm skillet covered with oversize chunks of tomatoes, peppers and onions that haven't been sufficiently cooked. Maybe the London branch of Hard Rock Cafe can get away with serving fajitas with no sizzle, but that won't work here in the Southwest. And while it may seem like overkill to bash this dish further, duty compels me to point out that it came with over-the-hill tortillas, tough and brittle around the edges.

You'd think salads would be a pretty safe bet. And the grilled vegetable salad, which brings together asparagus, zucchini, corn, tomato and avocado tossed with romaine, is well-thought-out. The problem is the "special vinaigrette dressing," which is sour enough to curl your cutlery.

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