By Heather Hoch
By Eric Schaefer
By New Times
By Rachel Miller
By Eric Schaefer
By Heather Hoch and Lauren Saria
By Robrt L. Pela
By Heather Hoch
Almost 500 years ago, Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado led an expedition through the American Southwest, searching for the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola and their fabulous stores of gold.
His plundering conquistadors were the first Europeans to reach the Grand Canyon and the first to travel the Rio Grande Valley. But they never did find any gold. After two years on the trail, they returned to their base in Mexico, empty-handed.
These days, as everyone in our thriving Southwestern metropolis knows, there's plenty of gold in them thar hills. It's just not the same kind of gold Coronado was looking for.
Though Southwestern soil isn't very rich in precious metals, it is rich in precious foods. Had Coronado been accompanied by a trained chef, who might have recognized the land's potential bounty, perhaps the region's bloody history could have been avoided. Imagine, instead of fighting, native Americans and Spanish invaders sitting down together in peace, sipping happy-hour margaritas, nibbling chips and salsa and swapping recipes.
The national craze for Southwestern fare has been running for almost two decades now, too long to be considered just a fad. Although slowing down a bit elsewhere, the cuisine is still going strong here. And why not? Locals are practically weaned on basic ingredients like tortillas, chiles and cilantro. The Valley's 12 million hungry tourists, meanwhile, also stimulate demand.
In downtown Scottsdale, the proprietors of the handsome new Tequila Grill know the Southwestern concept still has a lot of mileage left. And as veterans of Sam's Cafe, they also know what to do when they're behind the wheel. As far as I'm concerned, this is how the Southwest was won. (Note: Don't confuse Tequila Grill with Tequila's Mexican Restaurant, a nearby south-of-the-border place.)
It starts with the look. Tequila Grill is one of the most strikingly designed restaurants in town. Outside you'll notice a steel fountain and eight brick columns, each topped with flaming copper vessels. If the Aztec ritual of human sacrifice ever makes a comeback, the priests won't have to search for a setting.
The marvelous bar area, however, is where I'd prefer to worship. It's a very inviting watering hole. The surface of the circular bar is covered with frosted glass, smartly lighted from below with soft green light. Arising from the center of the bar circle is a mammoth, copper-topped tower, cleverly designed to resemble an agave plant, where the liquor bottles are shelved and the televisions are hung. The room is also furnished with cushy sofas and chairs, where you can settle in, puff away on a stogie from Tequila Grill's humidor and nurse your drink.
The colorful, casual dining room is just as eye-catching, done up with wood, brick and metal accents. No decor detail appears to have gone unnoticed. When's the last time you were in a restaurant with entrees under $20 where the salt and pepper shakers echoed the motifs on the seat cushions and curtains?
For the most part, the chef is as talented as the designer. So is the bartender, whose high-proof margaritas can take the sting out of even the worst day at the office. Especially appealing is the Border Margarita, a rousing combination of Herradura blanco, Grand Marnier, Cointreau and fresh lemon and lime juice, served on the rocks. It's more soothing than therapy and, at seven bucks, somewhat more affordable.
In what appears to be a disturbing new trend (I've noticed it in several places recently), Tequila Grill doesn't put out a basket of bread or chips. Call me old-fashioned, or call me cheap, but this is an idea whose time has definitely not come.
Still, the kitchen prepares several appetizers that can pleasantly knock down hunger pangs. Texas caviar wraps suggest that the chef has visited P.F. Chang's. He's transformed this popular starter, getting rid of the soy and ginger Asian notes and substituting Southwestern touches. In this version, butter lettuce fronds are heaped with diced chicken, sautéed onion, chile, zucchini, squash, celery and roasted corn. Roll up the lettuce and munch away. The wonderful hacienda dip with terrific fresh chips would be even better if the dip came in something other than a thimble. Fashioned with chicken, spinach, artichoke and bubbling cheese, the dip is good enough to eat with a spoon. But you'd better not -- as it is, even with miserly dunks, you'll run out of dip with two-thirds of your chips remaining.
Rocky Point shrimp, five meaty, chile-rubbed crustaceans in a crunchy beer batter, get a boost from a sweet-and-spicy chipotle honey sauce. However, stuffed mushrooms, served with a useless spiced pepper butter, don't get much beyond ordinary.
Main dishes display flair and care. What the menu calls "Chef's Specialties" really are, and all except one come in under $20, practically a bargain in this part of town.
The one that doesn't, Beef Tenderloin Roll, still gives you your money's worth at $21.95. You get an intriguing, offbeat blend of flavors: tender beef stuffed with mild Anaheim chile and Dungeness crab, moistened in an earthy mushroom sauce goosed up with guajillo chile. Sides of excellent mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus contribute to the pleasure.