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Lunch Mob

Quick bite: Fast food goes upscale at Cafe Express.
Lokey

Cafe Express, 2525 East Camelback (Shops at the Esplanade), Phoenix, 602-522-9199. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.

Self-service restaurants have never had much of a culinary reputation. Who can think of cafeterias without recalling the dreaded high school lunch hour? Remember reluctantly pushing a tray down the line, while scowling women dished out piles of mystery glop on your plate? Fast-food places don't conjure up any brighter eating memories, either. After all, it's hard to get worked up over a greasy burger that is first grilled by a pimply adolescent, then rung up by another, who needs a cash register with a Pentium processor to make change for a $1.99 purchase after you hand him two dollars.

Along with tasty fare, decor and atmosphere are two other dining elements likely to be missing from the self-service scene, unless you believe ketchup packets, light-weight cutlery and fellow patrons who linger over a cup of coffee for eight to 10 hours enhance the eating-out experience.

No, self-service restaurants aren't about gastronomy, design or ambiance: They're about cheap and fast. At least, some of them are. The new Cafe Express is trying to reimagine the concept. At City Hall Grill, however, they don't believe in messing with tradition.

Cafe Express is the brain child of Robert Del Grande, a James Beard Award-winning chef from Houston, whose Cafe Annie is a foodie destination spot. About 15 years ago, convinced that the mass market was willing to pay a bit more for higher-quality food teamed with self-service convenience, he opened the first Cafe Express. In 1995, Nation's Restaurant News, which covers the restaurant business, proclaimed it one of the industry's "Hot Concepts." Now, Del Grande oversees a dozen units, 11 in Texas. The Phoenix outlet is the first out-of-state venture, and I hear others are in the works.

Management chose the Valley location with care. The upscale Esplanade is surrounded by offices, bringing in the lunchtime trade, while the cinema complex should attract customers at night. There may be spillover, as well, from the Ritz-Carlton next door and the Biltmore Fashion Park crowd across the street.

Inside, the airy room looks pretty spare. A few metal stars are hung on otherwise bare walls. Televisions over the small bar are tuned to sports stations. The most striking element: the "Oasis Table." That's what the company calls the big condiment island that sets Cafe Express apart from other players in the self-service market. It's impressive, all right, stocked with extra-virgin olive oil, infused oils, sherry vinegar, balsamic vinegar, several hot sauces, three kinds of mustard, ketchup bottles and huge jars of capers, Cornichons, pickles, olives, pickled peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and grated cheese. The idea, of course, is for people to goose up the all-day menu of salads, sandwiches, burgers, pasta and chicken with some of the fixings.

The ordering drill is familiar enough. After you've looked over the menu display overhead, tell the counter staff what you want. They'll give you a thingamahooky that lights up and vibrates when your food is ready. Because everything is made to order, it may take a few minutes. But that's all: Even at peak hours, this efficient kitchen had everything out within five minutes.

Cafe Express promises "Great Food Fast." Though it certainly delivers on the "fast" part of the equation, the "great" part is still a work in progress. A lot of the fare here doesn't get beyond ordinary.

One special, shrimp campechena, couldn't even get within hailing distance of ordinary. If you have visions, as I did, of a briny-fresh Mexican seafood cocktail, zipped up with cilantro, lime, onion and cucumber, get them out of your head. This lackluster model featured a bit of tasteless, cut-up shrimp and a couple of pieces of avocado in a horrible sauce that reminded me of chile-spiked ketchup. Back to the drawing board.

Soups, on the other hand, are a fine way to start off a meal. No, the chicken soup can't compare with Grandma's -- Grandma knew that dill and pepper are essential seasonings. But at least the flavor comes from a satisfying mix of shredded chicken, veggies and rice, not salt. The energetic gazpacho, meanwhile, has no defects. It's put together with chunky bits of celery, green and red pepper, carrot and zucchini, and "heated," so to speak, with serrano chile and Tabasco. This refreshing gazpacho has real bite, and I enjoyed biting back.

Along with soup, pasta is what Cafe Express does best. Cavatelli comes tossed with broccoli, mushrooms and goat cheese, and gets a noticeable boost from a sprinkling of garlic, parsley and bacon. Rigatoni features portabella mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes and a near-invisible touch of sausage. Fettuccine in a robust pesto sauce also hits the right buttons. And since the pasta portions aren't terribly generous, it's helpful that a side of house salad comes along to fill in the appetite cracks. That same salad also supplements the tasty but smallish quiche, fashioned with broccoli, mushroom and cheese.  

Two chicken entrees adequately satisfy whatever urges you have for poultry. You can get a roasted half-bird or a surprisingly juicy grilled breast, lightly brushed with olive oil, lemon and pesto.

Sandwiches aren't terribly distinguished. I expected more imaginative options, as well as better-tasting ones. The clear winner is the vegetable sandwich, a warm baguette layered with grilled zucchini, onions, red pepper, avocado and goat cheese. This is a sandwich for the 1990s. But the dull tuna salad and chicken salad sandwiches seem better suited to the 1950s. Why not gussy them up with something modern, like olives or water chestnuts? The roast beef sandwich, meanwhile, never really gets started, perhaps because the kitchen is so stingy with the main ingredient.

You can juice up the otherwise routine hamburger by stopping at the condiment station. Too bad there's nothing there to help with the hamburger bun. It's big, bready and completely overwhelms the burger. Hey, why not put the patty on a toasted baguette? The French fries, at least, are hot and crispy.

Salads are the most disappointing part of the Cafe Express experience. Maybe the kitchen expects you to breathe life into them at the Oasis Table, but this kind of culinary CPR shouldn't be necessary. Several are too heavy on greenery and too light on the touches that supply character. The shrimp salad, for instance, is just that -- greens and six medium shrimp, enlivened solely with the barest hint of bacon and avocado. If it hadn't been for the honey-mustard dressing, I might have fallen asleep. The same problem afflicts the grilled chicken breast salad -- I couldn't find even a trace of the promised pecans. And the olive, potato and veggie touches in the spinach and penne pasta salad can't overcome the off-putting lemon/olive oil dressing they're doused in.

Another salad drawback: hunger. The salads, which range from $5.45 to $7.45, don't come with anything except a napkin. If you want bread -- and you will -- it costs $1.75 for a small piece of baguette or toasted garlic bread.

If your day generally includes a two-hour workout at the gym, consider making a meal of dessert. The sweets here are first-rate, especially the apple tartlet, a gooey, streusel-topped treat, and the high-powered carrot cake. Brownies and German chocolate cake aren't far behind.

The Cafe Express concept is a good one: fast food for people turned off by fast food. Now management needs to spend time sharpening the execution.

City Hall Grill, 200 West Washington (City Hall), Phoenix, 602-495-3687. Hours: Breakfast, Monday through Friday, 6:30 to 10:30 a.m.; Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Everyone knows you can't fight City Hall. I wouldn't advise eating there, either.

City Hall Grill is a breakfast and lunch spot aimed at employees and open to the public. Perched on the 10th floor, it provides a million-dollar view of the Valley. I suggest grabbing a window seat and keeping your eyes firmly locked on the sights, because you certainly don't want to look at anything on your plate.

It's a spartan, sterile room, pulsing with all the good-time bustle of a mortuary. The only sign of energy comes from the friendly staff, fetchingly outfitted with hair nets and latex gloves, amiably ladling out food along the cafeteria line.

None of their energy, however, flows into the kitchen. Though no one expects world-class dining in this kind of operation, City Hall Grill falls short of even low expectations. Our municipal authorities should consider posting an advisory by the entrance: "Eating here may cause clinical depression."

After I took one bite of the chicken croissant sandwich, I understood why the City Hall Grill's windows are kept firmly shut. Mushy and tasteless, the croissant tasted as if it had been wrapped in plastic since the Goddard administration. The tough poultry, meanwhile, is slathered with a barbecue sauce that the word "awful" can't do full justice to.

One word conveys my reaction to the spaghetti and meatball platter: Yikes. Imagine chewing on a sponge, and you'll get an idea of the flavor and texture charms of the meatballs. The spaghetti tasted canned, and so did the side of green beans.

Chicken pot pie is a culinary Chernobyl, a stale biscuit heaped with a terrifying mix of chicken, potato, peas and carrot. Fork in hand, I steeled myself with Nietzschean resolve: Whatever doesn't kill me, I reasoned, makes me stronger. Thankfully, the chili was too weak and watery to inflict any lasting damage. The dried-out burger will inspire thoughts of vegetarianism. But the easy-to-resist salad bar could make you reconsider even that alternative.  

Fasting, however, isn't the only option. On Mexican food Thursdays, the albóndigas soup gets you through lunch unscathed. So does the shredded beef taco. But the rubbery, what's-in-this? enchiladas won't brighten anybody's day.

Don't come here expecting to experience the art of dessert-making. The chocolate meringue pie is downright nasty. And if any of the mayoral candidates runs on an anti-cherry-pie platform, he's got my vote.

City Hall Grill is a great spot to look out over the Valley. So bring your own brown bag, buy a cup of coffee -- and look out.


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