Bland of Plenty
The Landmark Restaurant, 809 West Main Street, Mesa, 480-962-4652. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 3 to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Our waitress recently relocated from Florida and her teenage daughter isn't pregnant. It's a relief, because it seems many of the girls in Florida are nowadays, and it is so easy to fall in with the wrong crowd. Tonight's soup, she adds, is split pea.
Wow. We had heard that the service was friendly at The Landmark, but we hadn't expected it to be quite so personal. Still, by the end of the meal, we're rooting for Linda's daughter, happy that she finally found the perfect sky-blue dress for her winter dance and amused that she considers "salad" to be a plate of croutons soaked in ranch dressing. We feel like we know her.
While anywhere else such intimate conversation might be intrusive, at Mesa's historic-themed Landmark, it's expected. This legendary restaurant -- it's been a Mesa staple for nearly 20 years -- after all, prides itself on the neighborly exchanges of an earlier era, when friends gossiped over backyard fences and moms cooked dinner every night.
At The Landmark, you're old friends. Really old.
If only the turn-of-the-century menu charmed in the same way. It's true that "old is new" now, with a return to TV quiz shows, retro wear and '50s-style decor. But some things, like The Landmark's antiquated cuisine, are better left out of style. Sure, it's home-style Midwestern cooking, but such bleak food is why I left my family's table the day I turned 18.
Be forewarned: despite its proud proclamations of offering "uniquely American cuisine," The Landmark is little more than Luby's in a party dress.
I can appreciate the comfort this sanctuary of gabled roof, liver-colored brick and plantation shutters must bring to the nostalgia-hungry. Built in 1908 as a Mormon church, the site has been home to the original Mesa Community College campus, meeting headquarters for Boy Scouts, and weekly dances with ice cream socials hosted by the Ladies Aid Society. These were the days when young women did time in home ec instead of under house arrest.
Inside, the restaurant is a haven of tapestry walls, elaborate flocking, plush carpet and gold chandeliers. Victorian china and antique clocks cluster on shelves between lace-curtained windows. Tablecloths are white, burgundy napkins are linen, and cherry-wood furniture glows with years of careful polishing. It's beautiful, but nursing-home antiseptic. Fresh flowers and candles would do wonders.
The Landmark certainly knows its customer. By 5 p.m. on any given day, the place is packed with geriatrics ready to feed. Some children attend, seen and not heard as if stuck in a time warp. Pretty little girls in velvet frocks fold their hands in their laps, and slick groomed young gentlemen pull out their mothers' chairs, tugging uncomfortably at their first neckties. These diners are solid citizens of the middle bracket. They've been around, and they know the niceties of a well-set table, yet have neither the taste nor the pocketbook to appreciate the real stuff. Nobody blinks when, at meal's end, servers inelegantly lay tinfoil across the table, scrape leftovers from the plates and form shiny silver animal shapes.
The setting is so perversely proper, my dining buddy and I are instantly stricken with giggles. The urge to do something naughty is hard to deny. Yet no one would send us to our rooms. Landmark servers are social acrobats, catering politely to the often-demanding retirees while joking with us younger folks.
A party of senior citizens next to us is about to convulse; they've already waited two minutes for their tea refills and are protesting loudly. But here comes our waitress Linda, deftly juggling orders for three other tables, bussing a vacated setting and restoring calm with four piping-hot cups.
Juggling dishes becomes a valuable skill, as my dinner guest and I find ourselves parked in the utilitarian basement dining room one busy Saturday. With two sets of stairs separating the main floor and the basement, visiting the upper-level salad bar is a challenge for us; nearly impossible for an older clientele (although the staff offer to carry diners up and down the flights, piggyback rides are not what we look for in fine dining). Instead, we cautiously balance large salad plates, bread plates and steaming soup bowls to navigate the stairs only to find it's hardly worth the effort.
In fact, the salad offer0ings are nothing better than enormous, filling an entire room centered by an antique gas stove (salad bar is included with entrees; $9.50 alone). Yes, the fixings are fresh, replenished constantly. But we're quickly bored with the mundane iceberg lettuce mix, frozen green peas, pickled beets, garbanzo beans and water-logged boiled eggs. Even no-brainers like Southwestern pasta and runny potato salad offend with a gritty texture.
Many dishes are well-meaning but indifferent: fluffy ambrosia, pickled herring, golden hominy (repeatedly boiled corn kernels), chicken rice salad, sweet meatballs, bland German potato salad, lukewarm cinnamon apples, weird pickled watermelon, packaged-tasting cinnamon rolls. Avoid the more exotic items altogether, like Pepto-pink, mushy bay shrimp and out-of-place kumquats and prickly-pear strips.
We concentrate instead on pleasantly kicky pepperoni pasta salad, fetching "krab" salad, silky rice and fruit salad, hearts of artichoke and palm, yogurt and the good, chunky salsa.
Better yet, though, reserve your appetite for Landmark's homemade soups. Ladled from weathered metal pots, these concoctions make the stairway steeplechase pay off. The menu standard, vegetarian vegetable, celebrates high flavor with big chunks of carrot, celery, beans and potato. Chicken potato soup reminds me of my grandpa's chipped chicken, thick with potato and celery in a pot-pie bath. The Colorado turkey soup reflects too much of canned, uncut cream base, but I enjoy its wobbly texture anyway.
My dinner buddy and I wonder what the "fire order" listing means on our bill, and are told that this is the server's command to the kitchen to cook the entrees. It's a good approach, ensuring that main courses don't hit the table before guests have finished their soup and such. Given that salad refills are unlimited, and that it's not uncommon for The Landmark crowd to fill up on greenery and take entrees home, it's a practical pacing control.
There's less concern for the actual food. This cuisine is based on mid-grade meats pounded to edibility by mallets. Everyone gets the same vegetables, no matter the entree. The highlight of dinner is free soda refills.
Swiss steak ($11.95), for example, is so enthusiastically hammered it resembles pot roast. Fashioned from braised round steak, it is well flavored but never truly tender under its seasoned flour parka. Supposedly sponged with a thick tomato stock, it arrives in a brown sauce that's more resonant of pan gravy. I take two bites of the accompanying seasoned rice and give up. Bland yellow grains studded with broccoli, carrot and celery are wastes of chewing.
Another flattened favorite is chicken fried steak ($11.95), average cube meat in an overly floured crust and tame country cream gravy. The only joy I could derive from this dish is if the kitchen let me loose with a mallet of my own.
Before I incite the rage of all Landmark lovers (and there are many), I'll clarify my stance. There's nothing terribly wrong with this stuff, but dining here must come more from habit than hunger. Many dishes, like beef stroganoff ($11.95), are competent. Bits of beef and mushroom in sour cream sauce over egg noodles tastes just like Stouffers, one of America's best-selling packaged dinners. But these are meals to consume at home when distracted by the TV, not when appreciating an evening out.
I mean, who really needs more stuffed meatloaf ($11.95), a pedestrian ground sirloin with chopped green olives, ham slices and mozzarella cheese. These invisible flavors are what prompt such healthy sales of ketchup. My dining companion leaves half his center cut pork chop ($13.95) on his plate. It's a hefty chunk of grayish flesh amply stuffed with cornbread and apple dressing baked in apple cider, but all the flavor has been stripped away. Too much cheese, on the other hand, masks a decent-enough chicken cordon bleu, clogging the flat-flavored fowl and ham. The stingy drizzle of Mornay sauce can't rescue this sorry bird.
Even I, a prime-rib junkie, find my standard cut (nine ounces, $15.95) not worth scavenging. It hunkers miserably on the plate, reviving only when goosed with a cream-cheese-like horseradish sauce and fine au jus. New York Steak ($17.95) brings 12 ounces of yet another tough beast basted in an AWOL cabernet butter.
Interestingly, liver ($10.95) succeeds better than I would have guessed -- its way smoothed by Linda, joking, "Do you need a new liver?" as I order. The kitchen serves up a well-done beef innard minus the harsh aftertaste that sometimes befalls this organ meat. It's topped with thick bacon that tastes like beef jerky and sautéed onion for a pleasing finish.
As for side dishes, that's exactly where I leave them. One night finds very good steamed cauliflower, broccoli and carrot goosed with a hint of butter; other nights disappoint with exhausted zucchini and peppers. Sometimes-chunky, sometimes-smooth mashed potatoes are an exercise in underachievement, completely denuded of any potato-ness whatsoever. Only an "add on" sautéed mushrooms ($2.50) holds promise, delivering a heaping bowl of domestic fungi fierce with garlic.
For whatever abuse is wreaked upon the main courses, care is taken with desserts (all $4.50). Linda insists that Landmark pie is "amazing," and it is pretty good. It takes three of us to finish off the hunk of vanilla ice cream, fudge, whipped cream and shaved almonds on an Oreo crust. Apple pie would be perfect, my companion moans, if only it were served hot under its crown of vanilla ice cream.
But here, finally, is where my eyes well up in misty memory of the days when mom kept the stove warm and the kitchen bright. Bread pudding arrives in all its sodden glory, a perfectly moist lump of cinnamon-imbued dryer lint capped with Cool Whip. Oh, to have it steaming hot and splashed with milk as my mother used to make it. But this will suffice.
The Landmark is a trip back in time, but I have no desire to rekindle memories of melancholy food and the boring old days. Linda, I'll have dinner with you and your daughter any day of the week, but please let me choose the restaurant.
New Times restaurant critic Carey Sweet has been writing about food and dining in the Valley for 10 years. Contact her at 602-744-6588 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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