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MOUTH BY SOUTHWEST

Coyote Grill, 3202 East Greenway Road, Phoenix, 404-8966. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Years ago, as a Peace Corps volunteer, I spent a few days in a dirt-poor, mud-hut African village--no electricity, no plumbing, no nothing. Just a few miles away, though, believe it or not, was a bustling Club Med filled with frolicking European vacationers. Needless to say, attracting natives wasn't a Club Med marketing priority--after all, it didn't take a genius to see that the local demographics were less than promising. I make the same connection when I think about the Valley's Southwestern restaurants. Think of the big guns: Arizona Kitchen, Cafe Terra Cotta, Top of the Rock, Vincent's, Pion Grill. For many of us natives, the $75-to-$100-per-couple tag makes a visit almost as much of a splurge as a Club Med week is for a Senegalese villager. No doubt these restaurants' well-off guests are in for a good time. The chefs use the finest regional ingredients in the most imaginative ways: corn risottos, smoked salmon quesadillas, wild-boar chilis with Anasazi beans, prickly-pear sorbets, tequila cheesecakes.

But can we live in the Southwest and afford to eat it, too? Can Southwestern fare be palatable and reasonably priced at the same time? My scouting expedition to two new Southwestern grills suggests that the answers are yes, and sort of.

When it comes to interior design, Coyote Grill's proprietors evidently share the previous restaurant tenant's decorating taste. The place still looks like the defunct Tia Maria's Coyote Cantina. It sports the same gleaming, Mexican-tile floor, the same wood-beamed ceiling and the same tropical-colored oilcloth tablecloths. It's easy on the eyes, almost festive. And so, to my unexpected delight, is the food. I was completely unprepared for the kind of quality I encountered here. And the fact that most entrees fell in the $9-to-$12 range only added to my gratification. An excellent, potent prickly-pear margarita may have softened me up somewhat, but not enough to make me lose all my critical faculties. The wonderfully moist and steaming homemade cheese and jalapeo corn bread was as good as any I've had. In fact, if duty hadn't called, I'd have been perfectly happy to spend the evening munching corn bread and sipping margaritas.

But then I'd have missed some outstanding starters. In particular, the soups were a surprising thrill. A rich, luscious cream of cilantro packing a sharp chile bite came with four floating grilled mussels. This is the kind of soup you'd expect from a top Valley Southwestern kitchen. Just as compelling was the fragrant corn chowder, inventively studded with jalapeo hush puppies. Watch out, though: Even a professional eater like me found these soups incredibly filling.

Chicken strips are a lighter way to get the appetite juices roiling. These weren't the usual greasy and fried fast-food look-alikes, poured frozen from a 25-pound bag. They were hunks of lightly battered, white-meat chicken, topped with peppered jack cheese and avocado salsa. The indifferent fried calamari and lackluster whitefish ceviche, however, couldn't begin to compete with the soups or the chicken. The main dishes, swirling with Southwestern flavors, are a winning combination of value, heft and taste. If done right, a simple grilled salmon doesn't need much adornment. All you really need is a fresh fillet and a chef who knows how to cook it. Coyote Grill's does. This slab came well-prepared, moist and flaky, accompanied by a perky curried applesauce.

Grilled quail is about as adventurous as the kitchen gets. Experience has taught me that there are lots of puny, overpriced birds in Valley restaurants. Not here. Doused in a zippy lime marinade, this quail was an exceptionally meaty $11.95 bargain, with gnaw-to-the-bone quality. Tasty sides of mashed potatoes and red cabbage were pleasing accompaniments. South-of-the-border-style dishes also exhibited a flair that convinced me this kitchen isn't content just to go through the motions. Take the massive smoked chicken and prawn burrito. An analysis of the interior revealed none of the awful, teeny-tiny shrimp I feared might be lurking inside. Instead, I discovered whole crustaceans too big to swallow in one bite. I also found lots of good-size chunks of smoked chicken. And it all came covered with sour cream, salsa and cheese, nestled in first-rate whole black beans and rice. If you order this platter, conserve your waitress's energy and ask for a take-home container at the same time. Even an old Tex-Mex standby like fajitas shows power. The version here, big enough for two people to share (especially once they've filled up on corn bread and appetizers), features mounds of sizzling smoked shredded chicken, onions and peppers, with all the usual fixings.

There are lots of ways I get a quick fix on a restaurant. One is by the breadbasket. Another is by the dinner salad. (Coyote Grill doesn't have one.) A third is by dessert. Invariably, places that rely on outside suppliers aren't serious about the rest of their fare, either.

 

Coyote Grill whips up its own desserts. A taco shell filled with kiwi and strawberries in a puddle of cräme anglaise was stylishly done. So was the smooth and creamy flan.

Coyote Grill is in a location that has killed several restaurants in just a few years. But any vultures circling from force of habit will probably be disappointed: The food here strikes me as too tasty and too well-priced not to attract steady customers. Bola's Grill, 7353 East Indian School (Holiday Inn Old Town), Scottsdale, 949-2652. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Bola's Grill is parked at one of the Valley's prettiest locations, Scottsdale Civic Center Mall. Grab a window seat and enjoy the view of grass, sculpture and strolling tourists. It sure beats looking at the restaurant's interior, a blandly corporate room without a single distinctive feature. A few big, potted cactuses and some inoffensive regional paintings may impress German visitors, but it's still a Holiday Inn version of the Southwest.

Aside from averting your eyes, you may want to plug your ears, too. This place pipes in the most God-awful, hotel-lobby Muzak I've ever heard. An up-tempo "Over the Rainbow" played on vibes almost sent me over the edge. Given these audio and visual cues, I expected innocuous, take-no-chances tourist food of indifferent quality. And the small menu is a snoozer that makes no demands of chef or guest: shrimp cocktail, meat loaf, grilled lamb chops, prime rib, chicken. But some of the fare is very nicely crafted. Most meals come with soup and a trip to the salad bar. On one visit, the thick Cheddar-cheese soup made a filling and favorable first impression. It tasted a bit like nacho sauce in a bowl, and I was grateful it didn't come with a nutritional fact sheet. On another occasion, though, the chicken vegetable soup had all the charms of the employee-cafeteria soup of the day. Don't get your hopes up over the salad bar. The greenery is fresh, with no sign of iceberg lettuce. But the tubs of potato salad, coleslaw, marinated mushrooms, cucumber and tomato, chicken chunks and bleu cheese are strictly routine. I feel even less charitable about the bread--dinner rolls that might have been bought at a day-old-bakery outlet. An appetizer of cheese-topped fried calamari will also help to pass the time until the main courses arrive, but it won't make the time pass any more quickly. If you must nibble on something, try the baby back ribs (they can also be ordered as an entree). They're meaty and pleasantly charred, and they come slathered with a tempting, sweet-and-tart, cranberry-tinged barbecue sauce. Hearty main dishes, priced between $8 and $16, are what Bola's Grill does best. The waiter suggested grilled lamb chops, and his advice was right on target. He brought out six sizzling, meaty, juicy chops without a speck of fat, enlivened with a not-too-overpowering roasted mint sauce. I had lamb chops at a well-known meat parlor a few weeks ago that came with half this amount of meat at one-and-a-half times the price, and they weren't nearly as good. The excellent mashed potatoes and medley of green and yellow beans that accompanied the chops provided a happy bonus.

The kitchen also broils up a wonderful piece of shimmeringly moist salmon on a king-size bed of pasta studded with shredded vegetables. But make sure you stop the cook from ruining the fish with a coating of dull, superfluous pepper hollandaise sauce. The other seafood option, shrimp scampi, isn't in the same class as the salmon. It's just another rubbery shrimp dish, although it comes with a courageous amount of garlic.

One of the nice surprises is chicken, which usually puts me to sleep. Here, however, you get thick slices of breast meat seasoned with olive oil, lemon and gobs of oregano. Not very Southwestern, but tasty, nonetheless. Surrounded by garlicky pasta, this dish gives you $10.50 worth of value. So does the even cheaper meat loaf platter. There's nothing institutional about it. The charred exterior and thick, brown gravy furnish two winning touches. Unfortunately, desserts are a real letdown. First, they're made elsewhere, a bad sign. Worse, you order them from a little picture booklet. This may please foreign hotel guests who've never encountered a Reese's chocolate peanut butter pie, but it's tacky. And while the custardy Granny Smith pie may have been great the moment it was pulled out of the supplier's oven, by the time it reached our table, the apples were chewy and the shortbread crust was over the hill.

 

It seems to me that Bola's Grill isn't quite sure of its identity. Is it content to be just a hotel restaurant for captive diners? Or does it want to grab the locals? The potential is there, but the place needs a dash more culinary flash. My advice to the manager: Check out Coyote Grill.


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