Sometimes it is so simple to bash chain restaurants, and admittedly, it can be fun. They're behemoths with mass-feeding troughs. They're invisible, out-of-state corporations more concerned with the bottom line than with creative cuisine. They bombard us with maddening commercials about "baby back, baby back, baby back ribs."
But it's also a fact that these big guns provide a large employment pool for the Valley of the Sun. Foodwise, they must be doing something right, since on any given night you'll find most chain establishments packed to the rafters. And every now and then, the chains step up to get involved in fund raisers for our worthy local causes.
Now, if only certain event planners would let those of us attending the fund raisers put our mouths where the money is. Just because corporate restaurants are participating in charity events on an increasing level doesn't mean party organizers should hoard the good stuff.
Indeed, we find the chains out in force at this year's Taste 2000 Celebration of Food & Wine, an annual party benefiting the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Phoenix. Approximately $700,000 is raised as almost 4,000 guests fill every nook and cranny of Biltmore Fashion Park, sampling from 30 Valley restaurants and more than 20 wineries.
As attendance has grown over Taste 2000's 26-year history, so has the corporate presence. Almost half of the restaurants hosting booths at Taste 2000 this year are, in fact, corporate-owned companies -- California Pizza Kitchen, El Paso Bar-B-Que Company, Ruth's Chris Steak House, Hops!, and Sam's Cafe, for example. Even national specialty shops step up to the plate, including chocolates by Bernard Callebaut, ice cream from Häagen-Dazs, hot beverages from the Coffee Plantation and chilled bottled water from Arrowhead.
While the chain participation isn't as exciting for the gourmet crowd (it's just not a culinary celebration without Vincent's famous crème brûlée), it's great to see their involvement on a local level. And my companion and I aren't concerned -- there's a healthy enough number of local restaurants listed on the pre-program that we're sure we won't be bored.
Little do we know that some delicious dishes will be off-limits to us.
Given the enthusiasm of the crowd, which bunches up at Taste 2000's entry like sprinters for the 6 p.m. start, for many folks, unlimited food and wine of any kind is a good thing. At $100 a ticket (60 percent of which is tax deductible), Taste 2000 is almost a bargain, marvels my event companion as we pick up our souvenir wine glasses and clever plastic trays that double as glass caddies. I don't often see these trays at nosh-around events, but I'd like to -- they're a handy extra as we try to elegantly balance food, drink and ourselves through throngs of cocktail party-dressed guests.
In busy events like these, preparation is key, and I have done my homework, plotting out a mental map of which booths I'll target before getting too stuffed to appreciate the food. While the others pounce on close-to-the-entry diversions like Sam's Southwestern Caesar salad and beef tenderloin mini-sandwiches from Gameworks, I drag my companion to the more unusual offerings. While I thank the chains for their donations, I'd still rather fill up on our own Valley-born favorites.
My strategy works for a while. Altos Bistro-n-Loft Bar is dishing up its famous paella Valenciana, stuffed with seafood, chicken, txistorra (Basque sausage), pork, vegetables and saffron rice. Reas' Olive Branch has us swooning with excellent crusty Italian bread simply smeared with extra virgin olive oil, and Tequila Grill lavishes us with grilled Chimayo chile pork loin in red chile sauce. Baby Kay's has turned down the heat in its horseradish-spiked shrimp remoulade, and the small crustaceans are pretty mushy, but feeding thousands does challenge even the best chef.
But what's the logic behind sequestering the event's best restaurant, Eddie Matney's, behind a "VIP only" gate? No mention is made in the pre-program that only folks ponying up $1,700 or more can snack on Matney's promised mashed potato-encrusted sirloin filet. Or that our "common" C-note ticket won't gain us access to primo chain Ruth's Chris' filet with sautéed mushrooms, nor Steamer's black tiger shrimp in Cajun spiced beer butter sauce. More power to those who can donate the big bucks, but it's a little insulting to find our charity is not worthy.
Sure, we're happy with Aunt Chilada's chicken chimis and The Bamboo Club's calamari salad. Multiple one-ounce pourings of various wines and live bands work wonders to soothe our hurt.
But Taste 2000 isn't an invitation-only event. This is an event that appeals to thousands, and there are plenty of other Taste 2000 pre- and post-event parties to cater to the large sponsors.
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Introducing chain-restaurant participation to increase donations is a good thing. Snubbing the average guest by shutting us out of the finer stuff isn't.
After-Dinner Mint: Zagat Survey's New Southwest Top Restaurants has just debuted, ranking more than 300 Arizona and New Mexico restaurants as reviewed by 1,000 "public opinion" surveyors. Zagat says our Top 5 Valley favorite restaurants are, in order: Lon's at the Hermosa Inn; RoxSand; T. Cook's; Vincent Guerithault; and Ruth's Chris.
Contact Carey Sweet at 602-744-6558 or online at firstname.lastname@example.org