RED, WHITE & BLUE PLATE SPECIAL
Landmark Restaurant, 809 West Main, Mesa, 962-4652. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 7 p.m.
Do you ever get tired of rich French sauces? Do you recoil from spicy Szechuan cuisine? Do Indian curries turn you off, green corn tamales bore you and pasta dishes leave you limp as yesterday's fettuccine?
Don't you sometimes long for good old, basic, hearty American fare? Pork chops, mashed potatoes, corn relish, roasted chicken and slabs of meat?
So I set out for Mesa's Landmark Restaurant feeling a bit like the eunuch on the way to the harem: I knew I was supposed to enjoy the evening, but I couldn't quite figure out why.
Housed in an old Mormon church (on Main Street, of course), Landmark looks like a Norman Rockwell picture come to life. It's neat as a pin, with homey floral wallpaper and carpeting. Old-fashioned tureens, pots and vases line the walls. Heavy, wooden breakfronts and chests give the dining room the air of a charming rustic inn, while high-wattage chandeliers and background classical music provide a touch of elegance.
It's the kind of place where young ladies sport flowers pinned to their dresses, older gentlemen call their wives "Mother," smiling waitresses fuss over you and Gallo dominates the small wine list.
On a recent Saturday night, the place was packed by 5:30. Not least among the attractions is the huge salad bar, occupying an entire room, which comes with all dinners.
Passing up some usual dreadful salad-bar suspects--mushy, tiny shrimp, tasteless cheese cubes, cafeteria coleslaw--we zeroed in on some exceptional offerings. I still don't know my limits when it comes to artichoke hearts and hearts of palm, but I'm sure I approached it. Pickled-herring fillets and tiny quail eggs don't regularly turn up on too many Valley salad bars. And the standard items, from thick vegetable soup and boneless barbecue chicken to hot dogs and beans and warm, German potato salad, renewed our belief in a kinder, gentler, tastier America. Lest the flavors of the salad bar interfere with enjoyment of the entree, Landmark passes out lemon sherbet to perplexed patrons. "What's this?" every table around us demanded. "It's supposed to cleanse your palate," our waitress chanted, but she was obviously skeptical. I got the impression that she would no more serve sherbet between courses in her own home than marijuana brownies.
The main dishes, for the most part, are as homebred as a John Philip Sousa march. Needless to say, there's not a foreign word, or even an accent mark, anywhere on the menu. But there's plenty to please the meat-and-potatoes crowd.
A nine-ounce hunk of prime rib, unadorned except by its own juices, came perfectly cooked as ordered, medium rare. No fancy sauce or complex arrangement of seasonings got in the way of the deep, beefy flavor. Happily, it was meltingly tender, not a bit tough or stringy.
And after a few bites of a double-thick, juicy, center-cut pork chop, stuffed with outstanding corn bread and apple dressing, I realized this is where Landmark excels: good, simple food, simply and properly prepared. It can be as satisfying in its own way as any complex dish.
But steer clear when the kitchen tries to get fancy.
Case in point: artichoke chicken. It was almost impossible to plow through the thick chicken breast and dense choke and cheese filling, all topped off with a heavy cream sauce. This bird dish never got off the ground--how could it, weighed down as it was?
Our meals came with ample side dishes. French-fried potatoes arrived thin, crisp and hot. Rice had an Oriental touch, though it was a bit salty. But contrary to all my expectations, there was no joy in spudville: The flavorless mashed potatoes struck out. Nor did the unpleasant, ladled-on brown gravy do much to help. And about the mixed vegetables, the best one can say is at least they weren't cooked to a mushy pulp.
Desserts are homemade and worth the extra 30 minutes you'll have to spend on the exercise bicycle. Landmark pie combines a chocolate cookie crust with vanilla ice cream, then adds swirls of fudge sauce, toasted almonds and whipped cream. Almost as good is a rich, New York-style cheesecake.
The members of the Landmark staff--the woman who takes your name, the hostess who calls you, the servers--are unfailingly polite, perky and professional. Our waitress asked us how we wanted her to pace the meal, and allowed lots of time between salad bar and main dishes, as we requested. She refilled soft-drink glasses without being summoned. And I saw her decide against serving me coffee that had been sitting around a while, opting instead to fetch a steaming fresh brew.
With full meals priced between $10 and $15, Landmark is also a real value. Next time the urge for Grammy Hall cuisine in a Saturday Evening Post setting hits you, go east, and arrive hungry. 40th Street Grill, 5040 North 40th Street, Phoenix, 957-3552. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
I may have stumbled on the solution to America's immigration problem.
Require the huddled masses yearning for work and citizenship to do more than simply answer questions about American history and politics at a hearing. Give them a taste of the USA by making them dine on 40th Street Grill's more-or-less wretched all-American fare. In comparison, political oppression and economic deprivation are going to seem a lot more palatable. So, for that matter, might fasting.
The unimaginative decor here mirrors the food. Tiffany-style lamps, some wood and dark-green carpeting don't exactly break new artistic ground.A jumble of pop-icon photos lines the walls, including Illya Kuryakin, Goldfinger and Ozzie and Harriet. For some inexplicable reason, there's also a glossy of Sigmund Freud, whom you will yearn to consult to learn what repressed guilty impulse brought you here to be punished in the first place. We started off with an appetizer combo of wings, stuffed potato skins and zucchini sticks. Hardly exceptional stuff, although the crunchy skins did come densely packed with bacon, scallions and cheese. But had we known this rather routinely ordinary plate would turn out to be the highlight of our meal, we'd have wandered over with it to the restaurant's karaoke bar and made a more liquid night of it. Dinners come with soup or salad. On this Friday night, the restaurant featured onion soup. I was looking forward to a hearty broth, topped with crusty bread and thick, tangy cheese. Instead, I got a watery, salty, cheeseless mess with unappealing clumps of soggy bread. The salad alternative was no better, mostly some desultory pieces of lettuce with indifferent dressings. Both soup and salad were accompanied by a basket of stale garlic cheese bread that crumbled unpleasantly all over our shirts when we took a bite.
But this hardly prepared us for the main dishes. Rarely have I encountered a restaurant that took so little pride or interest in its food.
The New York strip sirloin, which the menu calls prime, weighed in at 16 ounces and $22. But at 40th Street Grill, you can't count on getting a thickly marbled slab of meaty, tender beef. What showed up was a chewy, dry, imperfectly grilled hunk that had me seriously considering the merits of vegetarianism. Perhaps in a small, nameless act of kindness, the promised onion rings supposed to lend support to the steak never dropped by.
The barbecue-ribs-and-chicken combo barely aspired to mediocrity. The tough chicken had so little barbecue kick that the needle on my barbecue-o-meter failed to budge. And though the half-rack of ribs was meaty and tender enough, the flavor was as bland and forgettable as tuna fish on white toast.
Center-cut pork chops, neither moist nor tender, won't transport you to hog heaven. And no nifty corn bread and apple stuffing, like that at Landmark, livened up this plain piece of meat. Instead, I got a small container of applesauce--not much of a culinary reach.
The side dishes displayed the same unhappy lack of quality we'd gotten accustomed to. Yellow rice could have come off a hospital dinner tray. Mixed vegetables had no intention of getting mixed up with any kind of flavor at all. And potatoes au gratin came drenched in a mucilaginous yellow glop that looked positively scary.
40th Street Grill is also the site of an off-track-betting facility. But it hits an unenviable restaurant trifecta. Not only is it burdened with uninteresting, poorly prepared food, there are bumbling service and high prices, as well. Our waiter brought and removed dishes, cutlery and glasses with a randomness that suggested he was unlikely to take up the challenge of the Japanese tea ceremony anytime soon.
Meanwhile, after a couple of beers, it took more than a C-note to take care of the bill for three diners. By my calculations, if three people don't eat here ten times, they'll save a thousand bucks.
Get started tonight.
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