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By Laura Hahnefeld
I'm hoping that they've got my all-time favorite: garlic octopus. I can only pray they serve that other mouthwatering meal, whole fried snapper tumbled over rice, beans and French fries. Surely, shrimp endiablados will be on the menu no self-respecting restaurant specializing in, and I quote, "seafood selections found South of the Border," would leave off that fiery devil dish. I've been wanting to try this new Scottsdale place, Buckets, ever since its owners used those tantalizing words to announce the restaurant's arrival last October.
Delicacies from the Sea of Cortez, I thought. What a great gift to Old Town Scottsdale, such a contribution to an area that has virtually every type of cuisine but no good San Carlos-region fare. And what a wonderful memorial to the building's former tenant, the much-loved Cajun restaurant Baby Kay's, credited for introducing the Valley to its first taste of les bon temps, with infernally spiced gumbo, jambalaya and crawfish étouffée. Baby Kay's knew that bringing fresh seafood to our desert was a good start; to lock it in a full nelson with hyper heat levels and unfamiliar bayou flavors was a true risk.
But something has happened in the nine months since I first heard the news of this replacement operation. Buckets apparently has rethought its concept, and now I'm studying a menu in vain search for ceviche tostadas, oysters on the half shell, maybe even some crab-stuffed green chiles. My choices this day at lunch are instead things like beer-battered shrimp, chicken tenders, chipotle-glazed chicken wings, chef's salad, Philly cheese steak, a Zoni dog and Dijon chicken. Risk has run away.
7216 E. Shoeman Lane
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Region: Central Scottsdale
480-994-8484. Hours: Lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner, 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday.
Further torturing me: There's a big-screen TV playing behind the bar practically in my face, considering the tiny span of the intimate restaurant and it's tuned to the Food Network. 30 Minute Meals is on, and host Rachael Ray is showing us how to make spicy shrimp. Swish, the pristine crustaceans are shaken free of their cleansing water bath. Chop chop, in goes flat-leaf parsley, garlic and lots of crushed red pepper. Hiss, it sizzles merrily together in a skillet while Ray plunks sticks of spaghetti into a pot of boiling water. She marries the shrimp and pasta with an aglio olio of extra virgin olive oil, anchovy, red pepper and garlic. Voilá, a sumptuous supper is served.
I look down at my club sandwich and shrug. So Buckets' owners changed their minds. As its current menu states, Buckets is an American grill with a Southwestern twist. Maybe that explains why this turns out to be one of the best clubs I've had in recent memory, gorged with lots of thin-sliced turkey breast, crisp bacon strips, fresh lettuce and tomato, with mayonnaise between slabs of toasted wheat bread. Say what you will about the simplicity of such a sandwich, but my companion agrees with me: The perfect club needs to be constructed on a large enough scale to be impressive, but not so big that it falls apart when consumed one-handed. Bacon absolutely must be cooked to order: no reheating limp pork. There's no sogginess allowed with the bread, yet at the same time, it must be toasted gently enough so we don't cut the roofs of our mouths with sharp crust edges. Against these standards, Buckets scores well.
As the Food Channel continues its cruel demonstrations Ray has now moved on to a fine-looking salad, blending tomatoes and onions with parsley, oil, salt and pepper I joke that it's playing for the benefit of the chef. Perhaps he doesn't know how to make the "South of the Border" dishes, so until he watches enough cooking shows, we'll be eating the Philly cheese steak. But maybe that's not so bad. Again, this turns out to be the kind of stuff they do best. The sandwich is professionally crafted, stocked with deep-flavored, tender, sliced prime rib; gooey smoked provolone; sautéed mushrooms; sweet onions; and peppers on a grilled baguette.
So maybe that's the point of this retooled eatery. If I felt silly after cockily extolling Buckets' supposed south-of-the-border status to my friends, I feel redeemed now. I can, without hesitation, say what Buckets is: a kick-back place to enjoy cocktails on the patio or in the bar, eating appetizers, soups and salads, sandwiches and wraps. I can also say what Buckets is not: a place to part with $12 to $18 for main entrées that are boring, boring, boring.
Of course, my buddy and I had to learn that the hard way, beginning with our first visit. We've got to try the dishes closest to Sonoran-style, I told him on our initial trip. Choose an entrée, not the steak Diane or the rib eye.
Waiting for our meals, we gazed glumly at the fat backside of the empty Galleria, reading the big "For Rent" sign on the condemned brick building across the street (prime real estate, directly next to Bob's TV Repair). I liked the warm breadsticks, dipped in a pleasant enough sun-dried tomato-garlic aioli, despite the fact that they're served in a bucket. (The restaurant is named for its theme: appetizers arriving in shiny tin buckets, condiments in tiny buckets, lighting formed from inverted buckets strung from the ceiling, even buckets serving as sinks and trash bins in the restrooms.) A little later, the shrimp cocktail looked good when it arrived a half-dozen jumbo prawns overwhelming a parfait glass lined with purple and emerald field greens but it turned out to be mostly flash, with little flavor.