Chain Action

Cozymel's, 7373 East Shea, Scottsdale, 5962150. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Stick a compass point at the intersection of Scottsdale Road and Shea Boulevard. From that center spot, draw a circle with a radius of two miles.

Just 15 years ago, the 12.56 miles of real estate inside that circle would have been mostly empty, except for scrub, sand and saguaros.

Today, it's a different story. These days, this is prime northeast Valley landscape, a booming, upscale, densely populated area almost completely filled with expensive homes and massive commercial development.

You'd think this kind of high-end, high-traffic growth would attract sophisticated restaurants to this section of town. And, yes, a few have made their way here: Marco Polo Cafe, La Locanda, a second branch of Such Is Life, a third branch of Hops! Bistro and Brewery and the new Razz's seem to be operating successfully.

But nobody's likely to describe the neighborhood as gourmet gulch. That's because within the last year, spreading as stealthily and as swiftly as the Ebola virus, almost every restaurant chain in the Milky Way has gotten a branch up and running in the area.

I took a short tour down just a few streets and jotted down some of the names I spotted: Romano's Macaroni Grill, Grady's American Grill, Red Robin, Ruby Tuesday, California Pizza Kitchen, Coco's, Perkins, Village Inn, Chili's, Applebee's. (I didn't even bother noting the fast-food and sandwich franchises.)

Obviously, these chains are offering people what they want--every time I drive past, the parking lots are full. So I visited two of the most popular ones, Cozymel's and Mimi's Cafe, to try to figure out just what the attraction was.

At Cozymel's ("A Very Mexican Grill"), the setting is probably one of the people-pleasing lures. The place is designed to look like an idealized mercado--there's even a gift shop offering Mexican tourist knickknacks such as Day of the Dead figures and pinatas--to help separate you from your nondining dollars.

The dining room, spic-and-span clean, features these touches: crates of colorful produce, sacks of beans and rices, a burlap potato-bag ceiling and shelves lined with cans and bottles. Diners can amuse themselves looking at tortilla-making equipment, chickens rotating on a spit and margarita machines spinning their slushy refreshment. Tables covered with oilcloth send a casual message, while the cloth napkins inject a comforting note of class.

The high level of service may also induce first-time visitors to become repeat customers. Whenever our chips or salsa was low, the first employee to notice it--busboy, server, manager--quickly brought more. Our water glasses never dropped below half-full. The workers all smiled and asked us if everything was okay. (It's amazing how your mood improves when people treat you nicely, something you'd think all restaurant operators would have figured out by now.) The only sour note: a wandering "balloonologist" who, for a price, will entertain your table by twisting balloons into various shapes. I guess some folks enjoy this, but I find it faintly embarrassing.

What about the food? Cozymel's operators probably don't have a difficult time putting overtheir Mexican dishes in distant, far-from-the-border locations, such as their Tennessee or Florida branches. But you'd think that here in the Sonoran Southwest, we natives might be a little fussier and harder to please.

Apparently, we're not. How else could the kitchen get away with a ceviche appetizer consisting of cooked shrimp and tuna? Zipped up with a bit of cilantro, red onion and lime, this seafood is pleasant enough, but it's about as Mexican as Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. But no doubt the ceviche is just as Mexican as the diners here want it to be.

The same goes for the Mexican fondue starter. It's melted white cheese studded with shrimp and embellished with a zingy dollop of cilantro pesto. Served with two types of steaming tortillas (plain flour and an off-putting cinnamon model), the fondue strives to meet the test of taste rather than the test of authenticity. And, to its credit, it does.

Many main dishes seem to follow a pattern: The kitchen takes a quality piece of beef, pork, chicken or fish, gives it a Spanish name and surrounds it with some vaguely Mexican touches.

That's certainly the case with lomo de puerco, 12 exceptionally tender ounces of slow-cooked pork roast that's good enough to have come from Havana Patio Cafe. It's accompanied by something called "Yucatn rice" (although I have no idea what gives these grains any Yucatn character) and routine black beans.

It's also true of Salmon Tropical, a house specialty and, at $12.99, the most expensive itemon the menu. It's a beautiful salmon fillet, expertly grilled tomoist, flaky specifications. Unfortunately, it's coated with a wretched "Cancun" sauce that blends cilantro, serrano chile and honey into a Cuisinarted pulp. It suits salmon about the same way ketchup would. This fish would have been better off left alone.  

Beef fajitas, on the other hand, are just right. Cozymel's dishes out a half-pound of terrific, juicy, grilled skirt steak that's soft enough to gum. But the ho-hum plate of guacamole, pico de gallo and sour cream that's supposed to gild this platter doesn't merit even a second glance.

Compared with the slabs of animal protein, the standard combo-plate items have little going for them. The enchilada is a gloppy mess; the skimpy chicken taco is no different from fast-food versions; and the mushy chile relleno isn't helped by spinach and nuts in the filling.

Servers bring over the house-made desserts on a tray, the better to tempt you with. Both the chocolate "flan," a mousselike sweet topped with chocolate sauce, and the banana bread, which is actually a custardy sabayon, made me glad to yield to temptation.

Plenty of restaurants could learn a thing or two from Cozymel's. Sure, it's a "concept," and the food is neither authentic nor even moderately interesting. But it is fresh, plentiful, reasonably priced and tasty enough to send most folks home happy. No wonder northeast Valley gringos are lined up out the door.

Mimi's Cafe, 8980 East Shea, Scottsdale, 4516763. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, 7a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.

Remember the Coneheads from Saturday Night Live? They were the pointy-headed extraterrestrials with bizarre alien habits, who told credulous neighbors that they were from France.

Well, the operators of Mimi's Cafe, a California chain, want you to believe that their restaurant is French, too. So they put in all the usual bistro touches: cafe curtains; awnings that say things like "La Patisserie" and "L'Espresso"; a faux hotel balcony; a wrought-iron chandelier; colorful framed posters; green-checked tablecloths under glass; and piped-in light jazz.

One look at the menu, however, should be enough to convince even the densest Francophile that something is amiss. Mimi's Cafe is about as French as a Vegas stripper named Fifi La Boom.

Check out the appetizers. Unless French tastes have undergone a sudden shift since my last trip, I don't think you're likely to find a munchy list limited to battered and deep-fried zucchini, mozzarella sticks, chicken strips or artichokes in the cafes of Paris.

The breadbasket, though, wouldn't be embarrassed to show up on the Champs Elysees. You get wonderful crusty rolls, good enough to have come from the nearby Arizona Bread Company, as well as homemade carrot bread (cake, really) full of nuts and raisins.

Meals come with soup or salad. The greenery is absolutely useless--the caesar salad is a snoozy mix of romaine, croutons and some sort of tasteless grated cheese, dressed, as far as I could tell, with nothing but air. The soups are somewhat more interesting: a creamy corn chowder, a not-too-salty onion soup and a thickly stocked vegetable beef.

We sampled entrees from the four principal food groups: meat, chicken, fish and pasta. Nothing here will inspire diners to gasp, "Ooh la la!"

Pot roast is the best option: lots of moist, braised, tender beef accompanied by sweet red cabbage and mashed potatoes too light for me to believe they were fashioned from scratch. Chicken pot pie looks great: a massive serving encased in a puffy crust. But once you penetrate the crust, you run into a disappointingly institutional mix of carrots, peas, celery, mushrooms and prefab-looking chicken.

Angel-hair pasta comes studded with lots of unappetizing pieces of shrimp minced into tiny shards. When I eat shrimp, I prefer to see them in their original form. The menu also promised some seasoning punch--olive oil, garlic, basil and oregano. But I couldn't detect any.

The pasta acquires new charms, however, once you compare it with the sole meuniere. Prepare yourself for mushy slabs of once-frozen fish, lacking even a soupcon of sole's delicate flavor. Tasty roasted potatoes and vegetable slaw aren't enough to compensate.

And if the turkey model is any indication, sandwiches are no alternative to the entrees. This undersize sandwich, on dull focaccia, is light on both heft and taste.

Desserts are too little, too late. A supplier-provided mocha fudge cake, a rich confection coated with Heath bars, takes top honors. The fruit cobbler is merely routine.

On one level, I can see why Mimi's Cafe is packing them in. Nothing goes for more than $9.95; the setting is cute; the servers are efficient and friendly. Meanwhile, diners can eat thoroughly familiar fare and pretend they're Parisian sophisticates.  

But at its core, Mimi's Cafe has a corporate soul and no heart. As usual, the French have a word for it: non.

Shrimp fondue
Lomo de puerco
Combination plate
Beef fajitas

Mimi's Cafe:
Sole meuniere
Chicken pot pie
Pot roast
Angel-hair pasta

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