Outta the Park

Alice Cooper'stown, 101 East Jackson, Phoenix, 253-7337. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, Saturday and event nights, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.

It's spring, and our senses are awakening after a long winter's hibernation. Watch the blooming wildflowers swaying in the breeze. Sniff the fragrant orange blossoms perfuming the mild desert air. And listen closely for the sharp thwack of horsehide meeting leather, as major-leaguers begin limbering up for a new season.

Wildflowers, orange blossoms and baseball players aren't the only things springing into action right now. So are the restaurants and watering holes near Bank One Ballpark and America West Arena, which rely on sports fans streaming into downtown for most of their trade. For them, it's been an exceptionally long winter--no basketball until February, no baseball since the end of September.

As predictably as the swallows return to Capistrano, though, the crowds are set to flock back, cheering for the home teams. They'll be looking for pre- and postgame nourishment as well, a fact that hasn't exactly gone unnoticed by local entrepreneurs. Indeed, the opportunity to separate tens of thousands of hungry, thirsty, free-spending fans from their discretionary dollars has drawn the attention of some of this town's biggest names, who have been lured into the restaurant business.

Alice Cooper heads a group of investors in the bustling new Alice Cooper'stown, a hybrid sports/rock 'n' roll theme restaurant located just behind America West Arena. Meanwhile, the Arizona Diamondbacks, baseball legend Robin Yount and his brother Larry, former president of the Phoenix Firebirds, share ownership in Leinenkugel's, a pub and brewery just a foul ball away from BOB.

Cooper'stown takes the idea of restaurant "concept" beyond previous limits. In comparison, Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Cafe and Rainforest Cafe seem one-dimensional, with their single focus on movies, music or the environment. Cooper'stown, however, takes advantage of Alice Cooper's name to fuse sports and rock. It's all graphically illustrated by a mural of Alice on the outside of the building, swinging a guitar like a baseball bat.

Cooper'stown also distinguishes itself from the theme-restaurant pack in another way: Not only is the food edible, some of it is actually pretty good.

(Full disclosure: I know one of the restaurant's backers--our kids once played on the same soccer team. He spotted me on one visit, after we'd eaten. On two other occasions, I believe I got through unnoticed.)

Cooper'stown is set in a renovated warehouse on a gentrifying block along Jackson Street. The renovation follows the usual formula: sealed cement floors, brick walls and exposed ductwork. Almost every square inch of wall space is covered with sports and music memorabilia, from a signed Michael Jordan jersey to an autographed poster of Paul McCartney. There are so many television screens, broadcasting so many different things at once, that you may think you're eating in the television section at Circuit City. (If you want to escape some of the visual and aural din, ask to be seated in the balcony.) One cute touch: The servers, mimicking Cooper's onstage persona, are done up in black eye makeup.

It looks like almost as much money and effort went into the kitchen as into the setting. Wisely, the owners realized that once Cooper'stown's novelty wears off, it's ultimately the food, not the decor, that will lure customers back.

Cooper'stown's all-day menu doesn't offer any surprises. But you do get basic tavern fare that occasionally flashes some unexpected verve and dash.

That's certainly true of a couple of munchies. The cheese and crab dip, to my astonishment, actually tasted like cheese and crab. And it's served in a bowl arranged on a stand, licked by Sterno flames underneath to keep the dip from turning into congealed glop. Both the taste and the setup tell me somebody has been doing some thinking here.

The huge portion of button mushrooms also presses the right appetizer buttons. Smoked, seasoned and sauteed in enough butter to merit a letter of gratitude from the Wisconsin Dairyman's Association, these mushrooms put the "fun" back in "fungus."

Cooper'stown offers the usual main-dish suspects: burgers, sandwiches, pasta, salads and a few hot plates. But it also fancies itself a barbecue parlor. And in some respects, I can see why. The St. Louis ribs are meaty and tender, nicely charred and seasoned, and require just the right amount of gentle tooth-tugging to tear off the bone. Pulled pork is appropriately mild and moist. The wonderfully plump, juicy hot link represents a triumph of taste over nutrition. I'm less impressed with the tough, chewy beef brisket. (The problem may be that the meat is actually too lean.) And the overcooked barbecued chicken had all the juices, and life, sucked out of it.

But if Cooper'stown wants to be taken seriously as a rib shack, it needs to work on the barbecue sauces. The Carolina model isn't nearly sharp and vinegary enough. The Kansas City style is tomatoey, but too sweet. The West Texas version has some smoke, but not enough fire for me. And there's too much sugar in the fruity Maui Wowie sauce.

Other main dishes are generally well-crafted. "Mega Death Meatloaf" is accurately named. It's a hefty, heavy and filling slab, perched on a wedge of Texas toast, topped with a mound of garlic mashed spuds and a sprinkle of onion strings, all drizzled with thick gravy. About the only thing you can do once you finish this platter is nap. I'm also partial to the tuna casserole--Alice's mom's recipe, the menu says--buried under a layer of potato chips. Salmon is trendily broiled on a cedar plank, and the kitchen is up to the task. It also shows some skill with the kicky chipotle chicken pasta, which features lots of grilled chicken, sliced hot links, a rich cream sauce and an unmistakable hot chile bite.

The one clear entree loser: "New England" crab cakes, two lackluster patties with only the faintest trace of crab. Save your $10.95.

You're better off putting $7.95 toward the first-rate Reuben sandwich, lots of decent corned beef, cheese and sauerkraut heaped on grilled bread. The veggie focaccia is also tempting, stacked with grilled eggplant, mushrooms, squash, red peppers and herbed cheese. The Ty Cobb salad, meanwhile, is exactly as advertised: lettuce, cheddar cheese, tomato, hard-boiled egg, crumbled blue cheese, turkey and bacon. The hamburger, however, is punchless and came frighteningly undercooked.

If you've acclimated yourself to the noise and sensory overload, stick around for dessert. Check out the huge, fudgy homemade brownie, shaped like a baseball glove and teamed with cinnamon ice cream and whipped cream. The hot apple crisp is also appealing, aided by an energetic vanilla bourbon sauce.

Cooper'stown doesn't claim to be a shrine to the culinary arts, or a Saturday-night dining destination. But it's going to be a fun spot to fill up in before or after the game.

Leinenkugel's Ballyard Brewery, 201 South Fourth Street, Phoenix, 462-3800. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, three hours before event; Event Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (Hours vary according to event schedules.)

What are three reasons I wish I had been an investor in Leinenkugel's? Location, location, location.

Set just across the plaza from BOB, Leinenkugel's can count on 48,000 high-spirited people with disposable incomes to walk by 81 times a year.

For Leinenkugel's sake, though, I hope the 48,000 are a different set of fans every time. That's because I don't think the food and beer here are good enough to warrant a second visit.

Leinenkugel's has amazingly little baseball feel. Except for the beer tap handles affixed with baseballs, you'd hardly know the place was owned by baseball people and pitched to folks coming to the ballpark. On the other hand, with BOB looming out the big windows, maybe Leinenkugel's doesn't need to beat customers over the head with a baseball theme.

It does, however, need to rough up the cooks and brewer. Much of the food and beer here simply isn't major-league caliber.

Nachos are one appetizer nibble that's Double-A quality. Multicolored chips, blandly coated with Jack cheese, sour cream, black beans and snoozy salsa, are strictly for fans who've moved here from Milwaukee. If it weren't for a couple of slivers of jalapeno, these nachos would have had no character at all. Baby-back ribs are a better starter option, meaty bones smothered in a sauce designed not to offend anybody.

Hot entrees don't have much going for them. At $10, roasted rosemary chicken is the most expensive item on the menu, and perhaps the least remarkable. I defy anyone to remember anything about this bird two minutes after eating it. Eggplant parmigiana won't remind anyone of the eggplant parmigiana in the old neighborhood, unless the old neighborhood had no Italians. It's overbreaded and breathtakingly dull. To his credit, the waiter tried to steer me away from it, but my professional obligations triumphed over my better instincts.

The Oriental chicken salad should be sent to the minors to work on fundamentals. It's an undistinguished mix of greens, crisp noodles, almonds, mandarin orange segments and white meat chicken, heavy-handedly drenched in a too-sweet dressing.

Sandwiches are your best bet. The Oriental chicken wrap brings chicken, greens and veggies together in a spinach tortilla. The Reuben's mix of pastrami, coleslaw and cheese is a satisfying way to tamp down hunger pangs. The meatball hero is a two-hander and was about the only thing I had here that sported some seasoning oomph. And don't overlook the hickoryburger--it's probably what Leinenkugel's does best. It's a messy affair, a half-pound of beefy ground sirloin gilded with bacon, lettuce, tomato and cheese.

The home-brewed beers are a letdown. (Leinenkugel's is affiliated with Wisconsin's 131-year-old Leinenkugel Brewing Co., which is now part of the vast Miller beer empire.) The Bleacher Blonde ale is so light you can't taste anything. The brewer says he adds a touch of honey to the Honey Weiss, but I couldn't detect it, or much of any other flavor. The Rally Red ale is intriguing, but not intriguing enough--call it two-dimensional. The Hefeweizen, I hear, has won awards. While it's got the requisite fruity, clove aroma, it's not as good as other locally brewed models. The best brew is the spunky Get Down Brown, with its engaging fruity, hoppy and nutty overtones. And stout fans should appreciate the full-flavored Splitfinger Stout, which hits you head on without running you over.

You can take me out to the ball game any time. But I believe I'll be doing my game-day eating and drinking elsewhere.

Alice Cooper'stown:
Cheese and crab dip
Tuna casserole
St. Louis ribs (rack)
Brownie glove

Leinenkugel's Ballyard Brewery
Oriental chicken wrap
Reuben sandwich
Beer (18 ounce)



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