By Kathleen Vanesian
By Eric Schaefer
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And though my halibut was satisfying and moist (credit the foil wrapping to seal in the juices), it was entirely mundane, with a mantle of mixed peppers, purple onion and an almost indiscernible chop of jalapeño. The fish was more interesting when I mixed it up with the sides I chose, chunky mashed potatoes and tangy spinach leaves sautéed with bites of tomato and lots of garlic.
My companion's grilled chicken, meanwhile, was paper-thin and dried out, smothered in a lifeless roasted red pepper sauce and unimaginative under julienne carrot and squash. Sides of horridly salty mushroom-studded rice and sweet corn spiked with green pepper and tomato tasted like hotel buffet fare.
It was only when this disappointing first round ended that we began to take in our lesson. After we gave up trying to dig for supposed Sonoran stuff, things got better.
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.
My dinner companion did the unthinkable on our second visit; he joined me at the restaurant when he wasn't hungry. Some lame excuse about dying of heat stroke. But he had to order something, I insisted, even if he wouldn't eat it.
Grudgingly, he went for the peel-and-eat shrimp. Ten minutes after it arrived at the table, it seemed the quarter-kilo portion disappeared all too soon plucked from one bucket, shells discarded in another bucket, the shrimp dunked in little buckets of cocktail sauce kicked up with 3 Vodka, a hot new spirit distilled from soybeans and select grains. Here was a simple union expertly executed: the midsize shrimp firm and clean (places that leave the waste vein down the back make me scream), the cocktail sauce bright and sharp, the carved lemon alongside juicy and fresh.
Then I let him pick at selections from my bucket, stocked with an ample amount of truly good halibut, the moist and flaky slabs cloaked in a fluffy, crunchy-edged batter and dipped in savory tartar. I only wish I'd known earlier what treasures lay at the bottom of the pile of fish: mounds of incredible, addictive, deep-fried potato coins that smell and taste of pure clean earth. The fish is all the more magical in bites alternated with hot spud.
If I'm feeling generous and I am, by this visit, charmed by the quality of the casual fare I can forgive the earlier promise of south-of-the-border seafood by acknowledging that the restaurant does serve some cuisine at dinner that's close to it, even if it hardly resembles anything I've eaten on a sandy Sonoran beach. At dinner, executive chef Nicholas Haddad sends out shrimp especial, the firm shellfish sautéed with mushrooms, onion, peppers, roma tomatoes and white wine-tomato reduction almost as appealing as that dish I saw on the Food Network. He offers up halibut with a dainty dice of jalapeño. And he gives us fish tacos, that same silky, battered halibut blanketed in soft corn tortillas with crisp, shredded cabbage; tomatoes; and thick, spunky salsa. My choice of a side of spaghetti squash Alfredo may be an odd partner, but I love it, down to each skinny vegetable strand coated in cheesy cream.
Finally, we're done. We should be stuffed, and we are, but the combination of soothing dark lighting, the banter of sports on the TV screen, and the meat-locker chill of air-conditioning has made us forget it's summer. We decide to eat for hibernation.
So Buckets started out Sonoran. Now the only thing truly Sonoran here is playing on the Food Channel. But given the best things on its menu top-notch dishes of American fare it looks like the original plan pales in comparison to the finished product.