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Can Crackers & Co. keep upmarket East Valley appetites from wandering elsewhere? I'm not sure. But it may give them second thoughts.
American Grill, 1233 South Alma School, Mesa, 844-1918. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.
The menu at the long-running American Grill seems perfectly calibrated to East Valley tastes. The dishes sound contemporary enough, but at heart they're really sturdy, old-fashioned favorites dressed up with a few trendy ornaments. Consider pork tenderloin in a "currant Pinot Noir sauce"; pasta with "late harvest" mushrooms; cheese fritters with "Hatch green chili vinaigrette." What the kitchen is doing, gastronomically speaking, is putting tail fins on a Chevrolet.
535 W. Iron Ave., #131
Mesa, AZ 85210
Still, this Chevy is running smoothly, generally firing on all cylinders. It's not high-octane fare, but if you're not too demanding, most of it will get you where you want to go, and some of it will get you there in style.
The restaurant's look is so dated it's practically retro-chic. Think dark and clubby, with lots of wood, mounted animal heads, a huge chandelier, vintage posters, etched glass between the booths and a faux-balcony overhead. The only missing touch: ferns. The best touch? Check out the eye-catching, 1930s-style paintings, celebrating the heavily muscled American working class.
Some of the appetizers are worth checking out, too. The Southwestern spring roll could make it in Scottsdale, a crispy, open-faced egg roll filled with chicken, black beans and corn. I couldn't detect much cheese in the cheese fritters, but the zesty green chile sauce kept me from getting too worked up over the omission.
If you'd rather avoid a heap of deep-fried munchies, the Hangtown salad ably fills the appetizer void. It's luscious, a mix of spinach, battered oysters, bacon, candied walnuts and a sprinkle of feta cheese, tossed with a raspberry vinaigrette. Split this two or three ways, and get ready to smile.
However, the American Grill's signature appetizer, N'Awlins BBQ shrimp, doesn't bring nearly as much joy. The spicy (not spicy hot) shrimp seasonings are pleasant enough, but nothing more. And there's nothing at all pleasant about mopping up the sauce with the mushy, stale sourdough bread provided for that purpose.
There's no magic in the stolid main dishes, but several of them are very satisfying. Pork tenderloin is exceptional, a lovely hunk of grilled meat burnished with a currant Pinot Noir sauce that hits every flavor button. Be advised: This dish appeared on a seasonal menu that expired at the end of September. Let's hope the chef has the good sense to make it available year-round.
The Seafood Stew is another deftly crafted seasonal platter whose time shouldn't be allowed to run out. Like the pork, there's nothing cutting-edge about it, but the well-stocked mix of halibut, salmon, shrimp and mussels in a garlicky tomato broth is an uncomplicated delight.
And to my surprise, so was the chicken, as basic a dish as you'll find. The kitchen turns out a moist, tender double breast, touched up with herbs and citrus juices. This bird soars.
Unfortunately, not everything flies. Prime rib has no grievous defects--it's tender and trimmed of fat. But this slab lacks the beefy explosiveness you find in the best models. House-made "pasta pillows"--that's ravioli, folks--sound robust and alluring, goosed up with mushrooms, peas, garlic cream sauce and Parmesan cheese. But these pallid pasta pillows don't have enough oomph. And the sesame-seed-crusted ahi tuna, done up in a soy ginger sauce, is indistinguishable from the ten thousand other sesame-seed-crusted ahi tunas in ginger soy sauce that you've had elsewhere in town.
The a la carte sides are attractively packaged in small iron kettles. Two of them are worth the $2.25 splurge. Sweet potato hash brings cubed, crispy spuds. The parsnip, turnip, carrot medley is offbeat and tasty. But the kettle of potatoes au gratin is a disappointment--no crunch, no discernible cheese.
Desserts are nothing to get excited about. The most inventive element of the Carmel Crater Apple Pie is the spelling of "caramel." Wine-poached pear would have been better if it hadn't been drenched with so much butterscotch sauce.
Big 4 Restaurants, the operators of the American Grill, closed the Scottsdale branch of this restaurant a couple of years ago. Apparently, Scottsdalians didn't feel like making even a short drive to it. Mesans obviously feel differently about their American Grill unit.
The lesson: If you can't swim with the sharks, hang out with the minnows. In the East Valley's small culinary pond, the American Grill can still pass for a big fish.
Crackers & Co. Cafe:
Cumin-crusted sea bass
White chocolate mango tart
Grilled pork tenderloin