By Kathleen Vanesian
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A person could have starved to death living at Scottsdale's Desert Ridge since it opened in 1995. Sure, developers built gajillions of gorgeous homes in the upscale master-planned community, but nary a decent restaurant. It only took seven years for a good place to move in. In December, Desert Ridge Marketplace mall finally opened, bringing with it Grilled Expedition.
Grilled Expedition isn't great. It's got too many inconsistencies, and feels too much like a chain. Yet in this enclave starved for interesting, convenient dining options, it's an oasis.
The competition is bleak, after all. Other Marketplace offerings are the same as any mall around town: chains like California Pizza Kitchen, Mimi's Cafe, Bahama Breeze, Rock Bottom Brewery, On the Border, Macaroni Grill, Texas Land & Cattle, Fat Tuesday, TGI Friday's, Jillian's, and Islands Fine Burgers. Yawn. A few choices are a bit better, including expansions of other successful Valley independents -- Salute Italian, Malee's Thai and Sushi Restaurant (opening later this month), and Eddie Matney's casual shop, World Noodles.
21001 N. Tatum Blvd.
Phoenix, AZ 85050-4206
Region: North Phoenix
Meat loaf sandwich: $8
Baby back ribs: $18
Oak-grilled salmon: $16
Blackened rib eye: $19
Stone-oven apple bake: $6
480-419-7577. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Despite its corporate feel, Grilled Expedition is an independent (for how long, though, I don't know -- investors are being courted). It's obvious someone cares -- owners Jim Nagy and Chris Dushinski are visible, both working at the restaurant full-time. Ingredients used are much higher quality than typical mall-based chains, while prices remain in line with the masses. Servers know the menu, and have pulses.
Grilled Expedition's theme, as the restaurant's slogan shouts, is wood-fired adventure, meaning an emphasis on meats, chicken and fish flamed over roaring logs of oak and mesquite. The menu successes, appropriately enough, are these same dishes. Kudos to the kitchen for keeping a firm hand on the firing process -- often wood-flaming means dishes that taste of bark, but not so here.
After one meal, it's easy to predict what subsequent adventures will entail. If a particular sauce shows up draped on one dish, it'll be on several. If there's an opportunity to send out an exotic-sounding accompaniment, it'll be taken, though any authenticity will be in the name rather than the taste. And portions will be so massive that it stuns the senses.
The business screams big bucks, from the lavish exterior of stone walls, expansive glass doors and towering bins of logs. The interior is impressive, too, in a Houston's kind of way, with cherry wood tables and chairs, stone floors, walls and booth fabrics in earthy tones of olive, rust, tan and black, plus light wood paneling, all warmly lighted by high-tech pin lights. Visual spark is limited to a partial exposition kitchen, tin-framed prints of woodpiles, and a crackling wood-burning oven in the foyer. Soaring ceilings laced with crisscrossed fabric accents between wood rafters help absorb the noise. The effect is nice and clubby, though we've seen this look everywhere. The bar is the most unique feature, wrapping around a patio perfect for people-watching, with a pass-through wall that makes the bar open-air in good weather.
Service is friendly, if sometimes inept. We're barely seated before an eager young waiter presents us with shrimp on a stick, asking if we've ever ordered the grilled crustaceans with green curry rub and mango lime chile sauce before. No, they're not ours, we tell him, we haven't even placed our drink order yet, so he whisks them away, wandering among rows of booths to find them a home. On the same evening, we drum our heels for 20 minutes, wondering where the rest of our party is, only to finally walk through the restaurant and discover them seated at another table. They were on time, so were we, but the hostess didn't make note on the reservation pad that we had been seated first.
This place could better be called Grilled Expectations, sending out just a few funky dishes on a solid foundation of mainstream plates. Argentinean street tacos, pork tenderloin fancied up with pepper crust and black cherry sauce, and the Little Big Wedge dessert (frozen caramel peanut butter cake with a toffee bar on the side) show some imagination; the bulk is simply a step up from Outback Steakhouse.
There's the ubiquitous skewered appetizer nibbles, such as Thai chicken stix, served with an excellent, pepper-hot creamy peanut sauce; or the fire stix, six strips of slightly sweet and admirably tender marinated beef to be sludged through a pool of respectably potent hot pepper glaze.
A grilled quesadilla stuffed with marinated vegetables is too routine to rate notice, but street tacos are standouts, bringing four pudgy rolls of herbed tortilla gorged with soft and pliable, moist and salty pork; crumbly goat cheese; peppers; and a sweet-spicy salsa.
House salad holds no appeal, overpriced at four bucks for iceberg, red cabbage, a thimbleful of field greens, cucumber, tomato wedge and my choice of ranch dressing, an unimpressive sweet-vinegary lotion. One evening's feature soup of Hungarian goulash sounds interesting, but the resulting peppery tomato concoction is barely more than goosed-up American stew, plunked with chunks of good beef, green chile and red pepper.
My appetizer money goes to the flatbreads, compact pizzas elevated by a wonderful, puffy-crispy-chewy crust that manages to remain delightfully moist. Toppings of fresh mozzarella, tomato and fontina are all that's needed for a warm, wonderful mouthful, but blankets of apple-smoked chicken sausage, or shrimp, basil pesto and oven-dried tomatoes, make the pie ample enough for an individual lunch.