GOODBYE, COOL WORLD
Planet Hollywood, Biltmore Fashion Park, 2402 East Camelback, Phoenix, 954-7827. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week.
The Hollywood big shots have come and gone. The Arizona Republic has found other stories for page 1. The flacks have called off their public relations assault. Finally, the incredibly irritating Planet Hollywood ballyhoo seems to have abated. After three months, the restaurant has settled down to its real business: feeding the fantasies and bellies of the star-struck masses, while lining the pockets of its millionaire proprietors. So how's the food? Does it matter? Like Mount Everest, Planet Hollywood attracts people just because it's there. If you come here at prime dinner hours, you might even consider bringing along a Sherpa guide. That way, he can regale you with stories of exciting Himalayan expeditions while you pass the time in endless lines, waiting to get seated. Diners who've been to Disneyland will recognize the crowd-management techniques. First, you'll spot a phalanx of employees, whispering importantly into walkie-talkies at the entrance. Then, you'll be directed to the line snaking along the building. This outside line feeds an inside line, which eventually leads to a pathologically perky hostess, to whom you'll give your name and group size. Then, you'll wait some more. But this is Planet Hollywood, so at least you'll be able to wander around and see some really cool movie memorabilia. Right? Wrong. I know we're in Phoenix, not London or New York or any of those other sophisticated centers of culture that also boast a Planet Hollywood. I don't expect A-list items like Judy Garland's ruby shoes or Bogart's trenchcoat. I can even understand why our provincial outpost doesn't merit Mrs. Doubtfire's bra or an E-flat from The Piano. But what kind of rubes does Planet Hollywood take us for? Can't we yokels expect something better than a Bruce Willis costume from the 1988 bomb Sunset? (I once tried to walk out of this film. Nothing unusual about that, except I was 33,000 feet over Ohio at the time.) Don Johnson's bloody shirt from the 1990 turkey The Hot Spot is another conversation stopper. A piece of twisted metal, purporting to come from the bus carrying Richard Kimble to the death house in The Fugitive, is highlighted as if it were the Shroud of Turin. And an arrow fired by Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves would have taken on a richer meaning had it actually felled the producer. In fact, if it weren't for the two shrunken heads, featured in 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, that stared down on our table, the trip down Hollywood's memory lane would have been a total loss. The rest-room scene is actually more entertaining than the decor. Both the men's and women's rooms come with an accommodating attendant, armed with enough toiletries to stock a Walgreen's. If you didn't have any insecurities when you came in, the deodorants, mouthwashes, colognes and skin creams displayed here are bound to raise them. I'm surprised there wasn't a Rogaine stand. And five minutes of sinkside observation indicated that few American males these days completely trust their natural charms. Take away the long lines, the Hollywood glitter and rest-room diversion, and you're left with an ordinary burger-salad-sandwich-pizza place. Even the hunger brought on by an hour's wait doesn't do much for the appetizer munchies. Fried chicken strips breaded with Cap'n Crunch is not a terribly effective way to get rid of $5.75. The basket of queso and chips was oddly out of whack: We'd only gotten through a quarter of the chips by the time the small dipping bowls of cheese, salsa and guacamole were empty. We pointed out the imbalance to the waitress and asked for more. She said she was supposed to charge for additional servings, but she recognized our just complaint and brought us refills gratis. In fact, service is one area where Planet Hollywood really has its act together. It's prompt, efficient and friendly, no mean feat in this high-energy atmosphere. That Planet Hollywood intends to orbit around glitz, not gastronomy, is evident from the ho-hum main dishes. The baby back ribs have little character, and the barbecue sauce has little bite. The beef and shrimp combo fajitas have that same generic timidity, with nothing to make you sit up and take notice except the high-profit $12.95 price. The 12-inch pizzas, which sport a thin, tortillalike crust, are a better alternative. The Creole version, slathered with a zippy mustard and topped with blackened shrimp, andouille and plum tomatoes, is reasonably satisfying. The Planet Hollywood burger, served on a kaiser roll and not a mushy bun, passes the basic test, especially if you spring for the nippy blue cheese and crisp bacon extras. But the French fries never should have gotten into our galaxy--they tasted like they'd been sitting in the kitchen since Sylvester Stallone's last hit.
Two items stand above the general mediocrity. To my pleasant surprise, the grilled steak sandwich featured a tender, gristle-free slab of beef with grilled onions and a drizzle of blue cheese on an onion roll. At $8.95, it's the best deal here. And the Far Eastern chicken salad, a huge bowl lined with straw mushrooms, water chestnuts, mandarin orange segments, fried won tons, chopped peanuts and grilled chicken benefited from a zippy soy-ginger-orange dressing. Desserts are from the icky-gooey school. Caramel crunch pie is essentially a Snickers bar larded with chocolate sauce and nuts. Butter pecan rum cake sits in a puddle of caramel sauce next to a scoop of ice cream. And you'll need to be winched out of there if you down the white chocolate bread pudding by yourself. It's incredibly dense, topped with shaved chocolate and surrounded by white chocolate ice cream and whiskey sauce. Planet Hollywood left me feeling a bit like Groucho Marx did, after he was accepted for membership at an exclusive club. He declined to join, remarking that he didn't want to belong to any organization that would have him as a member. If this place is really so cool, I asked myself, what am I doing here?
Bandera, 3821 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 994-3524. Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 4:30 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 p.m. to midnight.
Bandera's backers aren't Hollywood stars. They're people with restaurant experience. It shows. This place was developed by the folks behind Houston's. They've fashioned a casual, quick-bite, late-night restaurant that dishes out big portions of unusually tasty, high-quality fare. It's not the kind of meal you're going to spend two hours lingering over. Prepare to be in and out faster than you would at Lens Crafters. You won't find too many bargain-priced platters, either. But I never felt I wasn't getting my money's worth. The room itself is pure 80s yupscale bar and grill: lots of dark wood, ceaseless thumpa-thumpa music, an open kitchen in the back and a big, horseshoe-shaped bar in the center. The menu is perfectly crafted for the Scottsdale residents crowding the place. They don't want to munch on fried zucchini strips, chicken wings or potato skins, so Bandera doesn't offer them. In fact, Bandera doesn't encourage appetizer nibbling at all--that would slow down turnover. Instead, the menu offers only one nosh, an unassuming house-smoked salmon plate for $9.25. If you want to stretch out your stay, you're going to have to pay for it. But why bother, particularly when the other menu choices are so much more immediately tempting? The shrimp gazpacho is a summery delight. Four shrimp, fresh off the grill, sit in a delightfully chilled tomato broth, thickened with chunks of onions and tomatoes and seasoned with cilantro and a bit of pepper kick. The Italian salad is another first-rate light option, served in a trough-size bowl. It's a perky blend of romaine and radicchio, with white beans, avocado and jack cheese, as well as roasted chicken and salami. The creamy Italian dressing gives it just the right touch. Too bad Bandera neglects to supply a hunk of bread to go with it. In the past, the stringy prime rib at Houston's left me less than enthralled. But Bandera's version is a remarkable improvement. It's juicy, tender, massive and packed with beefy flavor. And it comes with thick, scallion-flecked mashed potatoes that taste like somebody was actually peeling spuds in the kitchen. The signature dish here is the rotisserie chicken, the 90s' hottest menu item. It's generally marketed as a healthful alternative to meat, but don't fool yourself into thinking you're doing your body a favor. A recent nutritional study called rotisserie chicken more or less a Big Mac with thighs and wings. If that doesn't deter you, you'll be glad to know that Bandera flips moist birds with crisp skin, and serves them up with butter-swathed steamed vegetables. Actually, the best thing here is the most cholesterolly decadent: a superb, grilled New York steak sandwich, made from Angus beef, served on a French roll. At $12.75, they're not exactly giving it away, but the butter-soft meat will take your mind off the price tag. Ordering fish in the Valley is a chancy proposition, but Bandera's line cooks know how to handle ahi tuna. It came delicately grilled, and delicately sized. A huge helping of meat loaf and mashed potatoes is a better choice if you've come here famished. Bandera doesn't really want you hanging around for dessert, not with all those people piled up waiting for your table. Only two sweets are offered. The wedge of ice cream between two Oreo wafers draped with chocolate sauce imparts an uncomplicated sugar high. The white chocolate shavings on the banana cream pie add only momentary interest. If you're still hungry and really into dessert, there are about 50 places within a mile of here where you can better indulge your vice.
Bandera doesn't give you the opportunity to gawk at junk connected with third-rate Hollywood no-talents, or spray yourself with Right Guard. It does give you the opportunity to eat well. To me, that's entertainment.
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