PERFECTLY REGIONAL EXPLANATIONS
Sam's Cafe, Arizona Center, 455 North Third Street, Phoenix, 252-3545. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight.
Sophisticated, well-traveled food lovers not only always seem to know where to get a great meal, they also instinctively know where to avoid a bad one.
In San Francisco, they won't hike down to Fisherman's Wharf looking for a great seafood restaurant. In New York, they won't waste time hunting for ethnic gems within walking distance of a Broadway theatre. And in Phoenix, they won't step into a huge, downtown, tourist shopping development, such as Arizona Center, hoping to be rewarded with topnotch Southwestern cuisine.
Such, at least, have been my instincts. But this time, my instincts were wrong. The fare at Sam's Cafe is delightful.
The restaurant is colored in soothing, pastel tones that almost make up for the incredible noise level. Unfinished-pine columns and beams form a kind of ramada over the dining areas. Gewgaws of every sort announce the restaurant's Southwestern bent: Kachinas, pottery, baskets, sand paintings, blankets and ristras make it pretty clear the kitchen won't be dishing out moo shu pork. Bola-tied servers in blue shirts and khaki shorts complete the effect. Sam's Cafe makes a favorable first impression, swiftly whipping up potent frozen margaritas and putting out a tempting basket of fresh, chewy breadsticks. A small dose of alcohol and tasty, belly-filling carbohydrates, I've learned, do wonders for a sullen, end-of-the-work-week disposition.
So does a body-warming poblano chicken chowder. Bits of chicken and tortilla strips float in a velvety, poblano-chile-infused broth that can take the sting out of Valley winters. If my mother had been raised in a New Mexican pueblo, I suspect she would have made a soup like this. The empanada offers another savory way to edge into dinner. It's a puff pastry that the chef had the foresight to fill with one of my favorite ingredients--eggplant. Corn and red peppers are also tossed in. A first-rate black-bean sauce and a mild pico de gallo add to its charms.
Adventurers won't find exotic meats or fiery chiles among the main dishes here. As befits the location, the food is designed for mass appeal. And, in fact, the skillfully prepared entrees balance nicely in that middle ground between routine and outlandish. In-laws from Milwaukee, conventioneers from New Jersey, and Arizona natives should all find something appealing in this cleverly fashioned menu. Chile-rubbed shrimp finishes close to the bottom on the high-adventure scale. Except for the barely detectable chile whiff on the half-dozen grilled crustaceans, there's nothing very Southwestern about this dish. The green peppers and onion alongside give it the air of a kebab. So does the rice. It's called Southwestern rice, but that designation has no basis in Southwestern gastronomy. This bland dish is for the one member of your group who had to be dragged kicking and screaming to a Southwestern restaurant. The only dragging I had to do with the grilled-chicken-breast platter was wrenching it away from an uncooperative companion who didn't want to share. It features a generous slab of boneless fowl moistened with roasted tomato sauce. But what really makes the chicken take off are the two side dishes. Posole, a hominy stew made from dried corn, is a hearty, New Mexican staple. Why don't more Valley restaurants offer it? And Sam's cheesy chile relleno is sharply authentic enough to bite back.
The kitchen shows ability with fish. Salmon don't run up too many Southwestern streams, but after downing this version, you'd swear it was a native specialty. It's grilled to translucent perfection, placed in a useless but suggestive corn husk and swathed with a luscious chipotle barbecue sauce that provides as many flavor explosions as a first-growth Bordeaux. The restaurant's Texas roots show in one menu oddity, chicken-fried tuna steak. I ordered it expecting more in the way of entertainment value than eating satisfaction. But it works quite well, the thick slab of meaty tuna an appealing substitute for the usual beef. It helps, of course, to encrust the fish with crispy, fresh-fried batter, and to smother it with a creamy country gravy zipped up with jalape¤os.
The clever jicama-apple slaw side dish also augments the inventiveness, while making it easier to ignore the dismal "Baja fries" that unfortunately tarnish the plate.
Desserts aim right for the sweet tooth. The thickly textured, chilled flan gets the highest grades for originality. It's made from yams, garnished with pecans and doused in caramel syrup. Folks who like pumpkin-pie filling will find this treat right up their alley. The bu¤uelo offers up a fried flour tortilla, dusted with cinnamon, supporting a scoop of vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce. An ancient Anasazi recipe? No. A pleasant sweet? Yes. Sam's Cafe turns out to be more than just some "Why not?" downtown dining option, a place to fill up while shopping. The food makes it worth a journey, even if you don't plan to pick up any "my parents went to Phoenix and all I got was this lousy sweat shirt" Arizona Center souvenirs.
Richardson's, 1582 East Bethany Home, Phoenix, 265-5886. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight.
A couple of visits to Richardson's have left me in a schizophrenic funk. The New Mexican-style offerings are exceptional. The kitchen's regional range encompasses everything from outstanding Sonoran staples (tamales, enchiladas, burritos) to sublime, chile-scented grilled pork and chicken specialties fragrant with the aroma of the Southwest. This is food with flair, the kind you literally lick your lips anticipating as dinnertime approaches. So what's my problem? I love Richardson's fare. I just don't enjoy eating it at Richardson's.
The place seems designed to squelch every pleasure associated with fine dining. Or even civilized dining. It starts as soon as you walk in. Nobody greets customers at the door. After I spend several anxious minutes vainly trying to spot someone who might be a host or hostess, all of the latent insecurities that I've suppressed since high school come bubbling up. A guy hoping to impress a date here will mostly impress her with the fact that management thinks he's a nobody. The place is unbelievably jammed. Even on midweek nights, a couple should expect to wait about an hour during prime dining hours once it grabs the frazzled hostess's attention. That's because Richardson's has only a dozen tables ringing the perimeter. This is the kind of place Yogi Berra must have had in mind when he remarked about one popular restaurant: "Nobody goes there anymore because it's too crowded." You'll eventually be directed to the buzzing, U-shaped bar area that dominates the room. It's smoky. It's loud. Watch the two television screens or groove on some pounding music. Don't plan on whispering sweet nothings in your baby's ear or discussing NAFTA's effect on the Arizona economy. To the crowds and noise, add darkness. Profound darkness. You'll need a miner's helmet lamp to see what's on your plate. Richardson's is illuminated by votive candles, a design feature much better suited to Gothic cathedrals and Pharaonic tombs. We poured wax on our appetizers trying to get a better look.
And once you're seated, don't expect a relaxed, leisurely meal.
Although service at the bar is spotty, it's ruthlessly swift at the table. And lingering over coffee is strongly discouraged. The menu warns you: "In consideration of others [i.e., the poor, patient souls expiring from hunger at the bar] and due to the limited capacity of the restaurant, we may request you to enjoy your after-dinner cocktails and such in the bar area." With so much working against it, Richardson's might seem like an easy place to cross off your list. But the food can't be dismissed so easily. It's wonderful, occasionally even dazzling. The appetizers furnish the first hint. The Southwestern skewers bring grilled beef, shrimp, peppers, onions and meaty mushrooms. The two skewers sit on a tortilla, bathed in a creamy, jalape¤o hollandaise sauce, alongside a ladleful of whole beans. The enormous empanada enfolds chunks of chicken and scallions. Either starter will seriously dent an appetite.
But the main dishes shine even more brightly. Chimayo chicken is gorgeous, a baked breast stuffed with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, asiago cheese and mild poblano chile, all zipped up with a mound of roasted onions. Pork chop chorizo is just as compelling. A thick, meltingly tender grilled chop comes slit, crammed with chorizo. A robust fruit chutney slathered on top provides a perfect finishing touch. Grilled green beans and a green chile filled with browned mashed potatoes round out the superb platters. The more familiar Mexican dishes sport flavors you won't encounter at too many neighborhood enchilada parlors.
The lively chile relleno is a thing of beauty, temptingly layered with pork and asiago cheese. The chicken burrito holds moist, substantial strips of chicken breast, not little pellets of indeterminate origin. The beef in the enchilada is butter-soft. A tantalizingly fragrant chile sauce drapes the steamy tamale. And the carne adovada features melt-in-your-mouth-quality pork simmered in attention-getting red chiles.
But for now, extolling the talents of Richardson's chef is a bit like lauding Dr. Jack Kevorkian's medical skills: When you take the setting into account, it's hard to work up too much enthusiasm about professional proficiency.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.