South American cuisine" has a way of sounding exotic. More exotic than it really is. After all, we North Americans use many of the same ingredients in our own cooking. So how different can it be? They eat corn, potatoes, beef and chiles. We eat corn, potatoes, beef and chiles. They grill. We grill. A steak, by any other name, is still a steak.
Evita's, a new South American restaurant owned by Tony Caputo of Pasta Segio's, makes these commonalities crystal clear. The menu reads like any other North American steak house: surf and turf, lobster tails, New York steak, filet mignon, lamb chops. Offerings so familiar, they'll be reassuring to some diners, disappointing to others.
Count me in that second, gloomy group. South American" or not, there's nothing at Evita's that's very revolutionary. Aside from a few items like empanadas, Argentinean sausage and Brazilian feijoada, I've seen it all before and you have, too.
Including the restaurant's Eighties-something teal-and-black decor. What's missing are the visual cues to clue us inÏa foreign accent, as it were. Without it, the space is so sterile, so austere, it could be any kind of restaurant: Chinese, Thai, Italian. I'm not advocating travel posters, but some link to South America is needed to distinguish Evita's from any other late-Eighties-vintage Phoenix restaurant.
It doesn't help that the dining room is nearly empty on the night we visit. Like the one other party in the restaurant, we are seated by a space heater near the front windows. When cars on East Camelback zoom by fast enough to whip up a tail wind, these floor-to-ceiling windows rattle. It's a cold, lonely sound.
Evita's food does little to warm our souls. Appetizers of Argentinean chorizo and empanada are simply adequate. Loosely compositioned pink sausage comes in a pool of olive oil flavored with herbs, garlic, onion and parsley. Soft pastry pockets stuffed with ground beef and potato are similarly unspectacular. The salsa" that accompanies them is bland. It looks and tastes like canned tomatoes. Imagine my surprise when my gazpacho looks and tastes almost identicalÏthick, tomatoey and dull. I leave most of my soup in the cup.
My dining accomplice's Peruvian seafood chowder reminds me of gumbo. It's spicy and consists of shredded seafood and potatoes-among the ingredients I can identifyÏflavored with tomato. He complains of something crunchy (like shell), but we can never isolate the offender.
I sample three entrees at Evita's: surf and turf, lamb ribs and feijoada. The first plate features a tender, six-ounce filet mignon, perfectly grilled and sweetened with rosemary and garlic. It's too bad the large, co-billed lobster tail is rubbery, or this one might have been a success, though, with accompaniments like baked potato and creamed peas, hardly exotic.
Lamb ribs are slightly more unusual, but still not what I'd call foreign." If you like lamb and you enjoy gnawing on charred, greasy bones layered with fat and meat, you'll like lamb ribs. Evita's are flavorful and as meaty as you can expect. I destroy three before the amount of animal fat I'm ingesting overwhelms me and I have to stop. I enjoy the saffron rice and creamed peas that come on the plate, but I wonder why quinoa, lima beans, yucca, sweet potatoes, squash or corn aren't served instead. The late Felipe Rojas-Lombardi offered many recipes for these authentic South American vegetables in his critically acclaimed cookbook The Art of South American Cooking.
I envision Evita's feijoada as a one-dish meal, served over rice. Instead, this Brazilian black-bean stew comes to us in parts. Yellow saffron rice draped with sauteed, thin-sliced rings of Bermuda onion is heaped into one mound on the plate. Slices of pink chorizo and what appear to be conventional supermarket pork sausages, bits of pig's ear, strips of beef and organ meats occupy the center of the plate. And in the third section of the plate is one cup of plain black beans and one cup of spicy, doctored-up black beans that taste like they've been mixed with the seafood chowder. Still, I don't lose my appetite until dessert. The offerings are slim. I can't resist ordering the baked Alaska for two in a South American restaurant just for the sheer, ironic lunacy of it. You heard right, baked Alaska-uh, isn't that in North America? The problem is, the dessert is supposed to be flamed and served at the table. Our waitress has no problem lighting it. But five seconds of flambeing does nothing to thaw our frozen dessert, and we must watch in horror as she struggles with fork and knife, cutting and stabbing, in a heroic effort to remove the baked Alaska from its serving dish. When it finally does emerge, the portions are too large for our dessert bowls and too glacier-hard to eat.
But then, everything seems a little off at Evita's. Earlier in the evening, we watch as a teenage busperson props open the door to the men's room and prepares to swab down the floor with mop and pail. We can see him-and into the men's room-from where we are seated. Noting this, a waiter tells him to mop it later. The busperson stops, but continues to stand with the door propped open for another five minutes for no apparent reason.
Evita's is as expensive and confused as a South American country in political and economic flux. Unless major changes are made in a hurry, I don't see how it will last. Richard's makes no bones about being a traditional American restaurant, as in North American, these United States, amber waves of grain, red-white-and-blue, Mom and apple pie, long may she wave. The funny thing is, at its core, Richard's menu is nearly identical to Evita's.
Here you'll find surf and turf, New York-cut steak, filet mignon and seafood, in addition to other American" favorites like prime rib and old-fashioned chicken pie. Because Richard's chef has worked extensively in Valley Italian restaurants, chicken cacciatore, shrimp scampi and some pasta dishes are also offered. It is a classically eclectic menu, the kind many of us grew up with in the Sixties, the kind our parents still find comforting.
Unfortunately, it is not entirely well-executed. Crab-stuffed mushroom caps in cream sauce are salty. Except for those moments when the flavor of cognac comes through, the sauce is undistinguished. Parsley flakes and black pepper are two big ingredients in this dish. They show up repeatedly throughout the meal.
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A surf-and-turf wanna-be comprised of scampi-style shrimp and filet mignon is acceptable, but unexceptional. The shrimp in this combination are small, forgettable and drowning in garlic butter. The filet mignon is watery and has the texture of once-frozen meat. Evita's beef was much better. As for the old-fashioned chicken pie, my dining accomplice complains that there is too much chicken in it. Where are the vegetables?" he moans. There must be a whole chicken in there." Eventually, he uncovers some potatoes and carrots, but they're too little, too late, for a man who will no doubt become a strict vegetarian in a matter of months.
Chocolate-swirled cheesecake is roughhewn. Both my accomplice and I prefer the plain, New York-style cheesecake for its interesting sour topping-a chef's secret, according to our waiter. The best thing I eat at Richard's is-believe it or not-a chilled shrimp cocktail. The four large shrimp we receive are firm and meaty. The slightly chunky cocktail sauce is packed with horseradish and so good I could eat it plain. ²Our salad course also brings a certain amount of happiness. The house salad of iceberg lettuce, tomato, Bermuda onion, fresh mushrooms and red bell pepper would be even better if the house vinaigrette weren't so salty. A caesar is cursed with too many croutons, but the romaine lettuce is crisp and anchovies are available on request.
In terms of looks, Richard's leaves a lot to be desired. I don't know what this strip-mall restaurant was before it became Richard's last summer, but the decor is dull and tired-looking. Well-worn booths are covered with that ubiquitous, Southwest-style, sculpted beige upholstery. The rust-colored carpet is stained. The plant shelves near the ceiling are filled, as they always are at these places, with silk plants and woven baskets and other gewgaws. Richard's may serve a need in the no man's land between Pointe Hilton at Tapatio Cliffs and Sunnyslope. I don't know. All I know is, it doesn't seem to be serving anyone on this dead Friday night.
A HOUSE DIVIDED A WINTER OF DISCONTENT ... v1-15-92