Chevys, 2650 East Camelback, Phoenix, 955-6677. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
On Wall Street, they're called analysts. At the racetrack, they're called touts. In the business world, they're called consultants. They're all people who claim they can make money by reading the future. Faith Popcorn is a high-profile, self-promoting futurologist who makes a living telling corporate America what trends are coming. She's the one who identified the '90s lust for "cocooning." That's what stressed-out folks supposedly do after their daily, 9-to-5 battles in the working world. Cocooners want good eats and entertainment, but they're reluctant to take nighttime jaunts into the urban jungle to find them. Instead, they prefer to sit in the safety and security of their own living rooms, munching gourmet takeout and watching a laser-disc movie on big-screen television. Popcorn hauled out her crystal ball again a few months ago, when she spoke to a national food group about a new dining trend. What did the swami see?
"People are looking for excitement, but they don't want any risk," she told them. "They want to travel to Africa via virtual reality." What Americans are now longing for, she concluded, is "safe adventure." Savvy restaurateurs should be able to ride the "safe adventure" wave to big profit, she predicted, because "this trend has definitely impacted the food that people eat." How? Just look at two new restaurants along the trendy Camelback corridor, Chevys and Pico Pica Tacos. Each features Mexican food, but that's not what they're really selling.
Read their menus. The cover of Chevys' menu highlights in bold red lettering words like "whole wheat," "fresh fruit," "cholesterol-free" and "handmade." No doubt anxiety-filled diners are also comforted by assurances that the kitchen cheerfully welcomes requests to "leave off," "go easy on" or "put on the side" whatever might upset them to swallow. Same at Pico Pica Tacos. It, too, trumpets qualities like "handmade," "no cholesterol" and "all fresh, all natural." Its rice, we learn, is "nutritious," its vegetables are a "vitamin source" and the meat "cut extra lean for less fat." Yes, behold the perfect fare for the risk-free '90s--safe Mex. Chevys is not exactly a mom-and-pop operation. It's a chain, part of PepsiCo, the same multinational, multibillion-dollar cola conglomerate that also owns such gourmet palaces as Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken. You can be sure that Chevys' safe-Mex concept was thoroughly thought out by teams of accountants, decorators and marketers long before it opened. But you can't say PepsiCo isn't giving people what they want. Gushing reviews from around the country, including one from the local daily, attest to it. So do the crowds. I guess people are attracted to the festive south-of-the-border atmosphere--rough wood ceiling, a tortilla machine, waitresses in Mexican blouses, stacks of Corona beer boxes. Chevys is Mexico without Mexicans--the ultimate in safe adventure. Chevys also features annoying balloon people who pester families with their twisted creations. Personally, I'd rather be accosted by a guy with a folding table and a deck of cards offering a game of three-card monte. Nor can you escape shtick like staff-sung happy-birthday sing-alongs, a practice that ought to be made a violation of the municipal code. The food? As you might expect, it's harmless enough, bleached of just enough character to make it palatable to the Pepsi generation. Check out the chips. They're wonderfully fresh, but way too thin and insubstantial. If chips don't furnish visceral munching pleasure, who cares if they're cooked in "cholesterol-free canola oil"? Same with the salsa. If it's mushy and bland, does it matter that it's "blended hourly from freshly charred tomatoes, onions and jalape¤os"?
Most of the other offerings suffer from too much good-for-you freshness and too little flavor. The scallop ceviche appetizer, for example, sports a hint of lime, but almost nothing in the way of onions, tomato or cilantro. Main dishes are just as lackluster. The combo fajita platter came without any grilled sizzling onions or peppers, a grievous fault that even warm, fresh tortillas couldn't rectify. And though the beef, chicken and shrimp didn't have much sparkle, they sure beat the dangerously bony quail. I don't know what quail fajitas are doing on this menu in the first place, but I'd bet they won't be here long. The usual Sonoran snoozers run the gamut of taste from A to B. Pork tamales may be "handmade each morning," but handmade is not necessarily a synonym for quality. The beef taco here has no more flair than its Taco Bell cousin. And the chile relleno comes topped with an odd, Italian-type tomato sauce that may have been misdelivered by a Pizza Hut supplier. Only the enchiladas, zipped up with green onions, had some oomph. The same scallions perked up the side dish of rice. But nothing could bring Chevys' beans to life. Beans … la charra, purportedly seasoned with bacon, and vegetarian beans each registered absolute zero on the flavor scale. After a wholesome Mexican meal, management knows most people can't resist rewarding themselves with a dessert. So you can splurge on ice cream rolled in coconut topped with caramel sauce, or nibble at some mediocre flan. But if you're determined to pack on dessert calories, why do it here? Walk over to RoxSand or Christopher's Bistro just down the street and do it right. Utterly bland and boring, Chevys' corporate Mexican food is aimed right at fearful McMiddle Americans longing for safe dining adventure. What Chevys could use is a little less American concept and a lot more Mexican lard.
Pico Pica Tacos, 3945 East Camelback, Phoenix, 912-0048. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., seven days a week.
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If word of mouth means anything, Pico Pica Tacos is on its way to a smashing success. Ever since this place opened up a few months ago, people have been telling me about it. Even my kid's sixth-grade math teacher took the time to write me a glowing note. The California restaurateur behind it calls his venture "a new dining concept." Maybe it was 20 years ago, when he first started out, but not anymore. It just describes the kind of place where everything on the menu is hailed as the "healthiest," "freshest" or "naturally low in fat." Unlike Chevys, Pico Pica Tacos is a paper plate, plastic cutlery, "Order Here" strip-mall storefront. There are the usual Mexican knickknacks--serapes, sombreros, pottery--hanging from the wall. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera posters add some luster befitting the 40th Street and Camelback location. Pico Pica Tacos differs from Chevys in another way. While the fare is undeniably safe Mex, the emphasis is just as heavy on "Mex" as it is on "safe." One of Pico Pica Tacos' best assets is the woman working the counter. She patiently took me through the menu, gave me tastes and even poured me free samples of refreshing beverages from the large jars of homemade cantaloupe and tamarind juice. It's amazing how courtesy and friendliness can improve my dining disposition. So can good chips and salsa. These chips have heft and crunch, and get even better swirled into the tart, avocado-studded tomatillo salsa or smoky hot sauce. The carrot-jalape¤o mix will also give you an enjoyable tongue-lashing. But be careful if you call for a margarita. The menu calls it "special recipe"--premium tequila, Grand Marnier--but I watched mine get poured from much less exalted brands, with no break in the $2.95 tab. Order right and you can get some tasty eats. The Mexican noodle soup is pretty impressive--chunks of chicken, potato and carrot, which you can freshen with lime and cilantro that come on the side. Anything with carnitas, shredded hunks of tender, grilled, slightly charred pork, will also get high marks. I had it stuffed into a burrito, a substantial treat that you'll need to grasp with both hands.
Steak fajitas, however, claim first place. Perhaps low expectations threw my critical faculties out of whack, but I couldn't help marveling over the tastiness of the beef. Lots of onions, chile strips and guacamole certainly didn't hurt my mood. Neither did the friendly $6.95 price.
You don't see calabacitas on too many Mexican menus, but it's the quintessential '90s good-for-you platter. The version here features zucchini topped with tomatoes, onions, strips of mild poblano chile and chicken that tasted like it came from an honest-to-God bird and not a package of parts. But the chicken's real distinction comes from its redolently seasoned, richly flavored sauce, which enlivens all the other ingredients. Not everything is quite so distinctive. The fish taco offers bits of minced snapper cooked in lemon juice. Perhaps if there had been more of it, I could have gotten more out of it. There's very little briny taste coming through the two corn tortillas. Instead of selling it at $1.95, the operators should consider raising the price a dollar and heaping on more fish. Enchiladas are nothing special. The menu promised them in a red chipotle sauce, but it was harder to find than a believable O.J. alibi. And a little bit of the chilaquiles platter goes a long way. It's a Mexico City dish made from a mound of soggy tortilla chips topped with cheese, chiles and a choice of chicken, carnitas or egg. This plate's taste potential is fully mined after about three bites. Don't expect much from the rice or no-lard beans side dishes. They're loaded with nutrition but devoid of flavor. Dessert fans, though, will get a kick from the scrumptious flan, dense, velvety and full of burnt sugar snap. Yes, Pico Pica Tacos is a perfectly safe Mexican adventure. But if that's the kind of dining trip you enjoy, you should enjoy cruising in here.
OH, MY ACHING CAMELBACK:... v1-19-95