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For the first time in my life, I'm wishing that I adored baseball. Specifically, baseball as played by two teams: the San Diego Padres and the Seattle Mariners. Because then I could be as excited as the rest of the world seems to be over the new, improved northwest Valley, where the two teams play their spring training games.
I like the sport; it's a lot of fun. I played it all through high school (the softball variety, actually) and have the awards to prove I really grasped how to hit and field (a glittery trophy, even!). But my fond memories of freshly cut grass and the sound of wood hitting leather don't translate into a passion for actually watching America's most patriotic sport. And that doesn't give me much reason to venture out to the venues that have sprouted up in the Arrowhead area so dramatically over the last year.
The northwest Valley is Arizona's new golden child. There's long been money in the burg ($500,000 homes, anyone?), but suddenly, all eyes are upon it because of . . . sports. Because of the NHL hockey arena under construction. Because of the NFL stadium that has eluded so many politicians for so many years, and has finally landed in Glendale. Because of the Peoria Sports Complex, which – ooh – is home to those men in tight pants making more money in a season than I will in a lifetime just because they're good at playing catch (I saw some players at practice last week, and they were wearing truly ugly orange jerseys. If that's what real money buys, I'm not impressed).
8350 W. Paradise Lane
Peoria, AZ 85382-4744
Spinach-artichoke dip: $6.45
Half-rack St. Louis ribs: $11.95
Mike's Grill, 8215 West Bell, Peoria, 623-979-0900. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Antipasto misto: $7.95
Ultimate submarino: $6.75
Ziti e bisi: $7.95
Palo Verde Pizzeria, 8350 West Paradise Lane, Peoria, 623-979-9696. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.
Palo Verde pizza, small: $9.49
Cheese Steak: $6.49
As it is, I venture out to this new territory purely in search of what turns me on – restaurants. Thousands of fans will be swarming to the area for the opening of Cactus League play, and they need to eat, and I've been hearing this is the area to go for a fantasia of remarkable restaurants. The reality: utter disappointment in my sources, and the completely inescapable conclusion that no matter how charming the date, no matter how "important" the game, nothing is going to draw me back here until major changes occur in this dining scene.
Suffer along as I recite the long and disappointing list of game-day nosh choices that plague the stadium vicinity at 83rd Avenue and Bell. I've never seen such a clump of chains in one spot – it takes me less than 10 minutes to drive by them all, though it feels like hours of grief.
There are the truly tired slop shops of Red Robin, Buca di Beppo, Applebee's, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Tony Roma's, IHOP, Ruby Tuesday, Fuddruckers, Black Angus, Chili's, Bill Johnson's Big Apple, and old (Old) Town Country Buffet. There is that handful of those spots that work in a hungry pinch – Sweet Tomatoes, On the Border, Rock Bottom and Mimi's Cafe. There are a few that might warrant a single visit only because they're brand-new concepts to the Valley – Texas Road House, Abuelo's, Fox & Hound, and Texas Land & Cattle Co. There's also the kill-me-if-I-see-another P.F. Chang's, plus a newcomer that qualifies only as a run-screaming-into-the-night proposition: Elephant Bar, an African safari-theme place that prides itself on "elephant size" portions and delivering food within seven to nine minutes of placing an order.
It takes too much work to find the only three eateries that aren't corporate monoliths in this neighborhood. And yes, there are just three, count 'em, three, consisting of McDuffy's Wide World of Entertainment, Mike's Grill and Palo Verde Pizzeria. Worse, though, there are none, don't bother counting, none, that would compel me to come back except for the promise of a professional ballplayer's paycheck.
Sigh. What's this world coming to, when the most interesting dining choice in the area is McDuffy's? This is a joint that originated 25 years ago in Tempe as a college hangout featuring cheap beer and televised ASU games, yet now bills itself as Peoria's "Wide World of Entertainment." It cost more than $3 million to build. Believe me, the money didn't go into the food, but into the digital Disneyland of more than 75 giant TVs blanketing the two-story playground, complete with a video arcade, pool tables and a disco-ball-lit dance floor.
I lost my sports nut companion as soon as we walked through the door – he literally missed his seat in our booth, falling over as he couldn't divert his eyes from the flashing electronic eye candy all around. He barely glanced at the 50-item menu, so distracted was he by the genius it must have taken to wire all the strobe lights and projectors hanging from McDuffy's ceiling.
It's true that nobody but the six-pack-and-supper crowd is coming here for the Campbell's soup spinach-artichoke dip, runt potato skins, God-awful greasy fish-n-chips or a French dip fashioned from chipped bits of beef alongside from-the-bag fries. Non-sports fans stuck here can survive on the St. Louis ribs (sticky sweet sauce, but tender meat), or a good-enough chicken salad, layered with breaded chicken tenders, mixed greens, roma tomatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms, bacon and mozzarella. Yet no amount of alcohol can justify $6.95 for a TV-dinner-caliber plate of mac-n-cheese – at this, finally, my sports buddy glances away from the big screen and grimaces. "What the hell am I eating?"