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Phoenix City Grille, 5816 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 266-3001. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Dinner, Saturday and Sunday, 5 to 11 p.m.
What makes a neighborhood desirable in this town? Sure, the schools have to be good. Housing should be affordable. There ought to be parks, libraries and a shopping mix. The neighborhood shouldn't be too far away from a freeway, or too close to the criminal element.
Restaurants, too, play a role in the quality of neighborhood life. Everyone's happy when there are lots of nearby restaurants, serving a variety of compelling fare at fair prices.
5816 N. 16th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85016
Region: East Phoenix
Folks in a section of north-central Phoenix, bordered roughly by Seventh and 16th streets to the east and west, and Northern and Camelback to the north and south, seem to have more than their share of quality, neighborhood dining-out options. There's El Bravo, Texaz Grill, Mediterranean House, Coup Des Tartes, Sir Charles Bar-B-Q Pit, Eddie's Grill, Richardson's, Tutti Santi, Zinfandel, Big Wong II and Scott's Generations Deli, just to name a few.
Well, as Saint Matthew pointed out, to those that hath, it shall be given. Two new restaurants have recently opened in this area, and they're first-rate. Both Phoenix City Grille and Taste of Mediterranean Restaurant dish out superior fare at prices you'd only dream about in Scottsdale or along the Camelback corridor. I'd say they're a couple of joys in the 'hood.
Phoenix City Grille operates out of the former Sghetti's. The proprietors wisely haven't made too many design changes to this surprisingly good-looking spot. The raised dining area gives the room a touch of class. The vintage photos of old Phoenix, gleaned from our local historical society's collection, make staring at the walls a more entertaining prospect than is usually the case. Blues and country music are unobtrusively piped in.
The first thing that strikes you about the menu is the "No Couscous" disclaimer at the top. The words are surrounded by a circle and slashed with a line, the international symbol that means "forbidden." I guess the kitchen wants to send diners a message that there'll be nothing too weird, ethnic or trendy about what they'll be eating.
It's a clever idea, maybe a little too clever. As the "No Couscous" advisory suggests, Phoenix City Grille is aiming to position itself as a neighborhood spot for American comfort food. But the warning doesn't begin to suggest just how good some of the dishes here are. The food here may remind you of how mom used to cook, had she been trained as a professional chef.
The basket of chewy breadsticks makes a decent premeal nibble. But go ahead and splurge on the corn bread, available both by the slice and the whole skillet. It's one of the best versions in town, right up there with what you find at Pinon Grill and Coyote Grill, moist, crusty and flavorful. Pair it with a draft of Fat Tire Amber Ale or McFarlane's Pilsner, and you may be tempted not to bother with the rest of the menu.
That would be a mistake. The other appetizer options demonstrate that potato skins, Buffalo wings and mozzarella sticks aren't the only munchies America can come up with. Chief among the ones here were the fabulous griddled corn cakes, layered with ham and peppers, and gilded with a divine roasted-corn relish. Why do I say "were"? Because on a second visit, I found this starter had been misguidedly tweaked: The ham, peppers and corn relish were gone, replaced by chicken, black beans, scallions and tomatoes. This dish wasn't broke; nobody needed to "fix" it.
Thankfully, as far as I know, no one has tried improving on the grilled shrimp skewers, a half-dozen crustaceans teamed with peppers and mushrooms, alongside a nifty peanut dipping sauce. The two crab cakes also work well, although the kitchen might have used something more ingenious than institutional tartar sauce to accompany them.
The main dishes exhibit high quality. I've eaten so much salmon over the past few years (every restaurant serves it) that I'm about ready to spawn. But Phoenix City Grille's imaginative platter got my attention. The fish is seasoned with a touch of citrus and horseradish, grilled and served on a smoldering cedar plank. The sweet wood odor may remind some folks of a scented storage closet, but I enjoyed the combination of aromas. I also enjoyed the marvelous mashed potatoes, loaded with enough snout-clearing horseradish to give you a sinus buzz until Labor Day, and the thick-cut grilled veggie medley, fashioned from peppers, onions, squash and carrots.
Flank steak also gets the treatment. It's not the most tender cut of beef, but here it's first marinated for tenderness and flavor, then grilled, sliced thin and fanned across the plate.
Barbecue chicken was also marvelous, a juicy bird marinated, grilled and coated with a mild chipotle barbecue sauce. I liked this dish so much I sent a poultry-loving friend here to try it. Unfortunately, the kitchen had zapped it from the menu, claiming it was having trouble getting the bird right. Let's hope the chef reconsiders--this chicken is worth the effort. Seafood linguini is also worth the effort: shrimp and real crab tossed in pasta, enlivened with artichokes and capers in a lemony butter sauce.