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Gecko Grill doesn't simply do good old-fashioned Mexican food. Oh no. The restaurant offers a full American barbecue menu, too, serving baby back ribs alongside its burritos.
If this seems like an ambitious pairing, it is. Real barbecue lovers won't stand for so-so smoked meats and sauces, and with quality Mexican restaurants a dime a dozen in the Valley, there's no room for second-runs.
But the Gecko pulls it off, pleasing followers of both types of food. The kitchen consistently delivers satisfying, gringo-friendly Sonoran-style Mexican food alongside tasty mesquite-smoked 'cue. Either of these concepts could stand well enough alone; together, they're even better.
Spinach enchiladas: $6.45
Two of a Kind Tacos: $7.25
Louisiana hot link: $4.75
Half rack baby back ribs: $8.35
Blue Agave, 4280 North Drinkwater Boulevard, Scottsdale, 480-429-1123. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Baja tuna rolls: $6.45
Beef tenderloin relleno: $9.95
Beef chimichanga: $8.95
Tuna sandwich: $7.95
Gecko Grill is a familiar name -- it opened about five years ago. That was when the joint, run by the Moreno family, was located in a charmless strip mall on Baseline east of Gilbert Road, its equally low-ambiance interior dominated by a blaring television set. This is the new and improved Gecko, though. Enough people craved the chimis and barbecue to inspire the Morenos to relocate and expand, opening a shiny new shop in a shiny new mall this spring.
The change is a welcome one. This Gecko is prettier in pink, done up in baby-hued walls, tile floors, ceilings, booths and silk bougainvillea. Chopping up the candy fest are viga poles supporting faux-tile patio roofs, gecko-inlaid floor tiles here and there, carved wooden chairs for the diners and a classy, carved-wood work station for staffers. It's perfect for its strip-mall surroundings -- cleverly accessorized, not intimidating, reliably tasty and affordable. Gecko Grill is the Mary Kay of Mexican food.
There's nothing cutting-edge about the cuisine, with its standard tacos, tamales, enchiladas, burros, tostadas and such. This certainly isn't where to go for assertive spicing or surprises. What we get are honest, well-flavored dishes that rely on fresh ingredients instead of gussied-up presentation or overpowering heat to wake us up.
The sleepy tomatillo sauce and timid red sauce aren't worth the space on the table, but a ramekin of bean dip is excellent, all creamy and deep with a chile punch. Spread on perfect, crisp chips dusted with lots of salt, the legumes are a superb start.
The freebies are filling enough, however, that appetizers are unnecessary. There's nothing too interesting here, anyway, with choices including a quesadilla, nachos or queso dip. Head instead to the specialties, such as an appealingly offbeat shrimp quesadilla. The flour tortilla is folded and stuffed with healthy portions of shrimp, cheese, silky seafood sauce and the unexpected spark of fresh mango cubes. Relleno is another notable choice, the roasted chile plump with crab and creamy white sauce or bloated with cheese under a mild-mannered green sauce.
I'm smitten with the spinach enchiladas, the plate cradling two slender bundles tucked with juicy leaves and draped in a delightful jalapeño cream cheese sauce. There's a rich blend of spice in this dish, tempered nicely by the slightly bitter spinach stuffing and sided with southwestern corn kernels dotted with red pepper and scallion. The same jalapeño cheese sauce makes the everyday chimichanga better, too, the fried package bulging with chicken, pork or beef.
Just as interesting are "two of a kind" tacos, which is a duo of fish, shrimp or one of each. These tacos feature firm, grilled white fish and sautéed shrimp kicked up with chopped purple cabbage and pineapple. A dreamy, sugary glaze of honey butter makes them terrific. And the tampiquena scores with two fine filets of marinated, charbroiled steak, paired with a cheese enchilada moistened with the green chile sauce, plus little tortilla cups of guacamole and pico de gallo.
Even a routine combo plate becomes noteworthy, thanks to the beef in a burrito, stuffed with shredded meat tinged with wood smoke, plus whole pinto beans and diced tomato. A chicken taco makes a trusty sidekick, the two soft white corn tortillas brimming with moist chicken breast, iceberg and white cheese.
Gecko gets into higher gear with its barbecue, putting some serious spark into its hot sauce, a thin concoction that's tart like fruit, while packing a true chile clobber. I love searing spice, but the medium version's all I can handle with the Louisiana hot link, a smoldering sausage with crisp casing that snaps against a squishy egg bun. The fowl, though, leans toward dry; without sauce, this bird would be boring. Pulled pork doesn't do it, either, moist and tender but swimming under a sauce so sugary it tastes candied.
Baby back pork ribs are remarkable, however, tearing from the bone at the gentlest tug with no hint of fat or gristle. No overpowering smoky tones here, just top-quality meat. They more than make up for the weak showing of the sides, a twice-baked potato that's nothing better than a half russet baked with Cheddar topping, lacking any of the whipped-spud interior it promises, or coleslaw that's the same the world over. But the beans are beautiful, swimming in that confectionary sauce with a powerful punch.
Gecko Grill is all dressed up now, and with no place to go . . . but up.
Blue Agave has been tinkering with its menu since it threw open the doors in January. Gone is a relatively straightforward listing of classic Mexican standards. In is what management calls "A New Way to Mexican Cuisine." Nuevo, no. I say this approach is nuts.