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GRILLS IN THE MIDST

The main dish has always been my least favorite part of a restaurant meal. Give me some warm bread right out of the oven, and a zesty salad with lots of greens, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes and a zippy homemade dressing.

Let me nibble on hot wings, pan-fried dumplings, crispy pakora, quesadillas or calamari. Ethnicity doesn't matter, just bring on the appetizers.

Fill me up with a thick clam chowder, a comforting matzo ball and egg noodle, or a sinus-clearing hot-and-sour soup.

Blow me away with a rich cheesecake, a tart fruit pie or a creamy crçeme brulee and a strong cup of coffee.

Then put a fork in me: I'm done.
But a visit to two new Valley grills has completely upset my beliefs about the restaurant universe. Like a culinary Copernicus, I've discovered that meals can revolve around entrees, with the other courses orbiting like planets. Z'Tejas Grill, an Austin, Texas, restaurant that's just arrived looking to strike gold in Scottsdale, promises dining South by Southwest." The menu ranges from New Orleans to Yuma, and so does the decor.

A casual place, Z'Tejas parks you at thick wormwood tables adorned with white tablecloths, votive candles and some fresh flowers. At booths you'll sit on slatted wooden benches with comfortable cushions. The look here is desert bayou, the color scheme running to pink, blue, lime and canary. Faux windows with shutters line one wall, while palm trees are painted on the wall behind the bar. The lighting is particularly well-done, the wall fixtures cleverly arranged to illuminate the food while the rest of the room recedes in a dim twilight.

On pleasant spring nights, you can place yourself beyond the reach of the interior designers and eat on the patio. Appetizers are tasty, but insubstantial and pricey. The menu described Navajo roll as Navajo bread stuffed with cheese, crab meat, peppers and onions. Actually, it was more like an egg roll, cut into quarters, with a peppery mayo sauce for dipping. The dish seems about as Navajo as moo shu pork. It comes on a nice bed of crispy fried spinach, but good as it was, $6.75 seems steep for this little nosh.

Don't bother grazing here; jump to the meat. The trio of grilled chicken, beef and pork we sampled were reasonably priced, great tasting and plenty filling.

Grilled chicken adobo was a large, moist, herb-encrusted chicken breast, dribbled with fragrant goat cheese and a mild adobo sauce. The flavor combination and creamy texture kicked my sensory organs into fourth gear.

The menu's description of stuffed beef tenderloin sounded so mouth-watering I was sure it could not meet my expectations: medallions of Angus beef loin stuffed with pumpkinseed pesto, roasted red and green peppers and Jack cheese in an ancho chile cream sauce.

What came were two hefty slabs of fork-tender, juicy beef enfolding everything the menu promised. It was imaginative and expertly prepared, one of the tastiest beef dishes I've had in the Valley.

I didn't think the beef could be topped, but somehow the stuffed pork tenderloin pushed my taste buds into overdrive.

Four healthy chunks of pork tenderloin were stuffed with a mild chorizo, Jack cheese, grilled onions and poblano peppers. A roasted-garlic cream sauce was artistically drizzled on top. At $10.75, this might be one of the best main-dish buys in town.

Diners frightened by the prospect of chiles with their main courses shouldn't be alarmed. None of our entrees had the remotest hot or spicy chile kick. The chiles provide flavor, not heat.

The main dishes all come with a choice of two side orders. We tried all six offerings. By far the best were the corn custard and black beans. The custard was a yellow cloud around crunchy bits of green pepper and kernels of corn. The rich black beans get some help from onions, although a bit of sausage could have done even more.

The other choices-rice, new potatoes, steamed broccoli and julienne vegetables-seemed like afterthoughts, however.

As the main dishes were cleared, we all remarked how we felt satisfied without feeling stuffed. Then we remembered-the French bread never showed up with our meals. Could this be a cagey management ploy to prime us for dessert? Or was it the sign of a staff that's still getting its act together a couple of months after opening? The bola-tied servers were pleasant enough, but the pacing was a bit uneven.

As it turned out, I was glad to have room for dessert. Ancho fudge pie sounded about as promising as turnip cheesecake. But our server assured us that the ground chiles simply intensified the flavor of chocolate. It was plenty intense, a goopy butterscotch pie with luscious globs of chocolate. Equally appealing was praline cheesecake. It's more pralines than cheesecake, but who cares? Drenched in a praline sauce and sitting on a firm graham-cracker crust, this cheesecake will keep you in sugar orbit.

In contrast, the rum-flavored chocolate fudge cake in banana sauce stayed firmly earthbound.

Another excellent spot to launch your cholesterol and insulin levels into the stratosphere is Skip's Grill.

As casual as Z'Tejas, Skip's also favors lots of wood and effective art-deco-style lighting. Tweed-backed booths give the place a clubby feel, although weird, framed, crumpled-copper panels on the back walls look like they've escaped from some nearby art gallery's remainder bin. Here, too, you can eat outdoors, and gaze at Scottsdale's snowbirds searching for genuine Navajo artifacts.

Skip Skip's appetizers-they're needless diversions from the main business at hand. The battered calamari were several notches above average, for instance. But why fill up unnecessarily? Save your appetite and energy for tearing into grilled meat.

Especially since Skip's-unlike Z'Tejas-provides a large salad before the main course. Served on a dinner plate, it's a mix of lettuce, sliced red onions, tomatoes and a few large croutons. As dressing, we had a somewhat-too-sweet-and-pungent honey-lime dijon mixture, and a pleasantly bland buttermilk concoction.

For an extra two bucks, Skip's will substitute a caesar salad for your house version.

Save your money. If Julius Caesar had known his name would be linked to this paltry salad, even in error, he wouldn't have lasted to the ides of March. He'd have summoned Brutus and handed him a dagger somewhere around ground-hog day. This was little more than romaine lettuce with some dressing, without a single crouton or a hint of anchovy. But unlike Z'Tejas, Skip's server remembered the bread, a warm, fresh, round loaf of sourdough.

Don't finish your house salad, though, and take it easy on the bread. You'll need room to devour first-rate entrees and a couple of powerful desserts.

Grilled chicken breast, lined with pleasing grill marks, is first marinated in citrus juices. It comes to the table tender and moist, and covered with a very mild, fresh salsa. It's accompanied by Skip's best side dish, roasted black beans enlivened by some smoky sausage and a dollop of sour cream. Together, the chicken and beans make an outstanding entree.

I had the cholesterol special, tenderloin benedict. It's two small medallions of Angus fillet perched on toasted French bread, covered by two poached eggs and slathered with a rich, lemony hollandaise. Crisp fried hash browns complete the picture. It's a wonder I didn't have a seizure.

Actually, the star of this dish is the flavorful grilled Angus fillet. Next time here, I'd order it unadorned, either as a 12-ounce New York strip or ten-ounce filet mignon.

Leave it to my mother-in-law to end up with the absolute knockout grilled pork chop. This 12-ounce, perfectly grilled beauty-thank heaven, she couldn't finish it all-comes on the bone, crisply blackened outside, gorgeously juicy inside. On top rests a sweet-tart pineapple salsa that seemed born for pork, and which had us oinking with delight. If you're the kind of meat lover who thinks God would have stuffed hogs with chorizo and Jack cheese had He wanted them eaten that way, this dish is for you.

Like Z'Tejas, Skip's also has a couple of desserts that will reward you for skipping appetizers, ignoring the bread and picking at the salad.

The mint-chocolate cheesecake may be the densest formation of molecules in Arizona since the last meeting of the state legislature. You practically need a diamond-studded fork to cut it.

My wife, the world's undisputed fussiest cheesecake eater, tried to spear me when she thought I was moving in for an extra sample. Almost as good was a hot apple crisp topped with vanilla-cinnamon ice cream. It properly tasted more of tart apples and cinnamon than sugar, but you have to eat fast or face a melted glop. Only the triple chocolate pie, a kind of bittersweet mousse, fell short, with a texture too close to plastic. Apparently, good desserts like the apple crisp and cheesecake can effectively numb the portion of the brain that counts calories.

At both Z'Tejas and Skip's, just recite the mantra, Eat meats, save room for sweets." Maybe the universe will look different to you, too.

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