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Looking for tasty fare in friendly surroundings at student-friendly prices? At Crocodile Cafe, class is in session.
Beeloe's Cafe & Underground Bar, 501 South Mill, Tempe, 894-1230. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to close; Saturday and Sunday, 4 p.m. to close.
Set in the basement of the beautifully restored historic property at Fifth Street and Mill, Beeloe's has style. Walk through the buzzing bar area to the dining area in the back, and you'll run into a swirl of unexpected color. The tabletops are mini-art lessons, decorated with assorted reproductions of the Great Masters and accompanied by explanatory texts. The walls are covered with eye-catching paintings for sale, and you're likely to see an artist by his easel at work in the corner of the room. If it's too early for the live entertainment, you'll hear everything from Sinatra to Elton John spilling out of the music system.
I wish the food had been as stylishly put together as the setting. Invigorated by Beeloe's good looks, we sat down primed for a good time. I called for a pitcher of beer. "We don't have pitchers of beer," the waitress informed us. "Just by the glass." Come again? Why pour buckets of money into a college-town pub and not offer beer by the pitcher?
I also wonder about the thinking behind "boneless chicken wings," an appetizer fashioned from battered, white-meat chicken. According to the menu, you get "all of the zest and none of the mess" of real chicken wings. Actually, all you get are some prefab-tasting chicken strips swabbed with hot sauce, and a zesty six-dollar tag that just about matches the cost of the entrees.
Another munchie, a nondescript green chile queso dip flecked with spinach, packs no chile punch whatsoever. Pot stickers are just as lackluster, although they're somewhat redeemed by a nifty peanut chipotle dipping sauce. But don't look for redemption from the smoked-chicken corn chowder, a snoozy, flavorless broth.
Beeloe's main-dish fare is cleverly conceived. Unfortunately, the execution can't always keep pace with the concept.
Take the menu section called "Assemblage Wraps." It sounds like an inventive idea: beef, chicken or vegetables, served with tortillas and pita bread, prepared Southwestern, Mediterranean or Asian style. The tortillas and pita are wonderful, warm and fresh. But the chicken looks like something that came out of a 50-pound warehouse box--flat, thin-sliced pieces of institutional poultry. The "Asian" touch is just as dreary, a one-dimensional "teriyaki" sauce of no distinction.
Shepherd's Pie supposedly features "layers of roasted meat and veggies topped off with scallion sour cream mashed potatoes." But this menu prose didn't square with reality. "Layers of roasted meat" turned out to be a thimbleful of meat cubes that could have come from an employee cafeteria. The veggies didn't turn up at all. The mashed potatoes were thick and creamy, but not enough to make me consider ordering this dish again.
"Three Dancers Pie" didn't impress me either. It's a stack of corn tortillas, layered with beef, beans and cheese, done in by an off-putting enchilada sauce that became more and more unpleasant with each bite.
The tastiness of Beeloe's fare seems inversely proportional to its cutesiness. The unfussy and well-crafted barbecued chicken pizza benefits from pepper-jack cheese and a good crust. The straightforward pot roast is substantial enough to satisfy even an ASU defensive lineman. You get two thick slabs of tender, gristle-free beef, teamed with those good sour cream mashed potatoes and a helping of veggies. The best item we sampled was also the simplest: a juicy, beefy half-pound burger, loaded with lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle on a wheat bun, and served with crisp, right-out-of-the-fryer Cajun fries.
Desserts follow the same trend as the entrees. The pretentious chocolate taco is a bust, done in by a dubious raspberry-honey yogurt sauce. The waffle ice cream pie, on the other hand, is irresistible. It's a sweet, gooey, delightfully messy confection: a waffle cone in a bowl, smothered with ice cream, crushed Oreos, chocolate sauce, whipped cream and meringue.
At the moment, Beeloe's seems to have potential. With a little more kitchen care, that potential could turn into genuine achievement.
Tahini Chicken Salad
Beeloe's Cafe & Underground Bar:
Green chile queso dip
Burger and fries
Waffle ice cream pie