Chains Addiction

The Melting Pot has the fondue ritual down to a science. Fondue fans will find it a good place to do lab work.

Earls, 15784 North Pima Road, Scottsdale, 607-1941. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.

Is there any difference between the 60 Earls restaurants in Canada and the first American outlet in north Scottsdale? "We have to make the portions much bigger here," the manager confided. So much for folks who claim they can't get into their jeans because of their genes.

Although it's been around these parts only a few months, Earls is already a neighborhood success. On a recent weekend visit, we waited 40 minutes for a table. (Earls doesn't take reservations.)

What's the attraction? About a half-hour into our wait, a manager came over to our group apologizing for the back-up. He was bearing a freebie plate of ribs and four complimentary glasses of wine. It's astonishing how polite attention and a kind gesture can soften a hungry, impatient heart. By the time we were seated, I was ready to give Earls the benefit of every doubt.

Happily, I didn't need to. It's a smart-looking place, casual with a touch of class: lots of dark wood, oilcloth-covered tables, an open kitchen, colorful artwork, jars of preserved produce and sun-dried tomatoes hanging from the walls. The one design drawback? It's the noise. If you can't handle Concorde-level decibels, you need to consider wearing earmuffs.

Unlike the Melting Pot, which attracts customers by sticking to one basic idea, Earls lures diners with a menu offering an around-the-globe taste of everything.

Most of it is worth tasting. You'll need to order appetizers--Earls is the only restaurant I know of that doesn't put out a breadbasket. For 95 cents, however, you can tamp down hunger pangs with herb-tinged flatbread. More expensive appetite suppressants include intriguing California rolls, eight little morsels stuffed with crispy shrimp and rice; corn-flecked crab and shrimp cakes, accompanied by a spicy remoulade; and a mound of tender calamari, served with a yogurt dip.

Consider starting your entree culinary tour in Indonesia. That's where Earls' nasi goreng takes its cues. Curried fried rice is mixed with red peppers, onions, pineapple, mango chutney, apples, currants and yogurt. The fruit-curry pairing is very effective, and it's enhanced if you spring for a couple of bucks and have the kitchen toss on a mound of shrimp.

China is represented by chicken Hunan. Chicken breast is combined with a few veggies and peanuts and served over noodles, all doused in a vaguely Oriental sauce. Chinatown? Hardly. But it should please the one member of your group who wants a nonthreatening, light-on-the-calories Asian dish.

Pizza is a highlight. Earls has a brick oven, and it makes a difference. So do the toppings. The marinara model is heaped with roasted red peppers, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and artichokes. It's a good dish to share, if you're not feeling too selfish.

Tandoori chicken is less successful. Real tandoori chicken, cooked in a tandoori oven, comes seared crispy on the outside and is unbelievably moist on the inside. Earls' version is simply too dry, despite the efforts of the accompanying mango chutney. Terrific sides of roasted potato and Southwestern succotash--corn, black beans, squash and peppers--are the real stars of this platter.

The American fare is somewhat hit-and-miss. Ribs are great, meaty, no fat, tender, smoky and nicely charred. Cajun-blackened chicken gets passing marks, aided by a coating of garlic butter. The eight-ounce New York steak, however, is a disappointment. It's simply not a very appealing slab of meat, unless you're partial to tough and gristly beef. And at $16, it's no bargain, either.

Desserts aren't quite as interesting as the other courses. Best is the big wedge of mocha Kahlœa ice cream pie--you can actually taste the Kahlœa in the warm sauce drizzled over the ice cream. The apple cobbler has enough apples in it to keep the doctor away for about a decade. More cobbler and less apple, please. The chocolate mousse fudge cake, meanwhile, is highly resistible, done in by a waxy texture.

Earls may be a chain operation, but its kitchen doesn't insult your culinary intelligence. If I lived in this restaurant-starved part of the Valley, I'd cheerfully join this chain gang.

Melting Pot:
Combination fondue for two:
$37.95
Yin and yang chocolate fondue (small)
8.95

California shrimp rolls
$5.99
Ribs (full rack)
14.95
Mocha Kahlua ice cream pie
4.99

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