Outta the Park

Alice Cooper'stown, 101 East Jackson, Phoenix, 253-7337. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, Saturday and event nights, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.

It's spring, and our senses are awakening after a long winter's hibernation. Watch the blooming wildflowers swaying in the breeze. Sniff the fragrant orange blossoms perfuming the mild desert air. And listen closely for the sharp thwack of horsehide meeting leather, as major-leaguers begin limbering up for a new season.

Wildflowers, orange blossoms and baseball players aren't the only things springing into action right now. So are the restaurants and watering holes near Bank One Ballpark and America West Arena, which rely on sports fans streaming into downtown for most of their trade. For them, it's been an exceptionally long winter--no basketball until February, no baseball since the end of September.

As predictably as the swallows return to Capistrano, though, the crowds are set to flock back, cheering for the home teams. They'll be looking for pre- and postgame nourishment as well, a fact that hasn't exactly gone unnoticed by local entrepreneurs. Indeed, the opportunity to separate tens of thousands of hungry, thirsty, free-spending fans from their discretionary dollars has drawn the attention of some of this town's biggest names, who have been lured into the restaurant business.

Alice Cooper heads a group of investors in the bustling new Alice Cooper'stown, a hybrid sports/rock 'n' roll theme restaurant located just behind America West Arena. Meanwhile, the Arizona Diamondbacks, baseball legend Robin Yount and his brother Larry, former president of the Phoenix Firebirds, share ownership in Leinenkugel's, a pub and brewery just a foul ball away from BOB.

Cooper'stown takes the idea of restaurant "concept" beyond previous limits. In comparison, Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Cafe and Rainforest Cafe seem one-dimensional, with their single focus on movies, music or the environment. Cooper'stown, however, takes advantage of Alice Cooper's name to fuse sports and rock. It's all graphically illustrated by a mural of Alice on the outside of the building, swinging a guitar like a baseball bat.

Cooper'stown also distinguishes itself from the theme-restaurant pack in another way: Not only is the food edible, some of it is actually pretty good.

(Full disclosure: I know one of the restaurant's backers--our kids once played on the same soccer team. He spotted me on one visit, after we'd eaten. On two other occasions, I believe I got through unnoticed.)

Cooper'stown is set in a renovated warehouse on a gentrifying block along Jackson Street. The renovation follows the usual formula: sealed cement floors, brick walls and exposed ductwork. Almost every square inch of wall space is covered with sports and music memorabilia, from a signed Michael Jordan jersey to an autographed poster of Paul McCartney. There are so many television screens, broadcasting so many different things at once, that you may think you're eating in the television section at Circuit City. (If you want to escape some of the visual and aural din, ask to be seated in the balcony.) One cute touch: The servers, mimicking Cooper's onstage persona, are done up in black eye makeup.

It looks like almost as much money and effort went into the kitchen as into the setting. Wisely, the owners realized that once Cooper'stown's novelty wears off, it's ultimately the food, not the decor, that will lure customers back.

Cooper'stown's all-day menu doesn't offer any surprises. But you do get basic tavern fare that occasionally flashes some unexpected verve and dash.

That's certainly true of a couple of munchies. The cheese and crab dip, to my astonishment, actually tasted like cheese and crab. And it's served in a bowl arranged on a stand, licked by Sterno flames underneath to keep the dip from turning into congealed glop. Both the taste and the setup tell me somebody has been doing some thinking here.

The huge portion of button mushrooms also presses the right appetizer buttons. Smoked, seasoned and sauteed in enough butter to merit a letter of gratitude from the Wisconsin Dairyman's Association, these mushrooms put the "fun" back in "fungus."

Cooper'stown offers the usual main-dish suspects: burgers, sandwiches, pasta, salads and a few hot plates. But it also fancies itself a barbecue parlor. And in some respects, I can see why. The St. Louis ribs are meaty and tender, nicely charred and seasoned, and require just the right amount of gentle tooth-tugging to tear off the bone. Pulled pork is appropriately mild and moist. The wonderfully plump, juicy hot link represents a triumph of taste over nutrition. I'm less impressed with the tough, chewy beef brisket. (The problem may be that the meat is actually too lean.) And the overcooked barbecued chicken had all the juices, and life, sucked out of it.

But if Cooper'stown wants to be taken seriously as a rib shack, it needs to work on the barbecue sauces. The Carolina model isn't nearly sharp and vinegary enough. The Kansas City style is tomatoey, but too sweet. The West Texas version has some smoke, but not enough fire for me. And there's too much sugar in the fruity Maui Wowie sauce.

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