Is it possible to predict a lousy dining experience as soon as you enter a chow house, without a peek at the bill of fare? You betcha. For instance, if the teenage hostess is on her cell phone calling her boyfriend, or the waitstaff's forced to wear suspenders adorned with a slew of pins and buttons, these are excellent indicators that a purchase of Pepto-Bismol lies in your immediate future. Even better might be the presence near the entrance of a stack of color reprints from Restaurateur of Arizona, a trade mag representing the Arizona Restaurant and Hospitality Association.
Restaurateur specializes in cover-story puff pieces on local hash-slingers, and the publication doesn't exactly discriminate when it comes to the quality of the eateries in question. My last three disappointing meals were presaged by the sight of these slick, ad-like fliers near restaurant doorways, set out by the management of each as proof of their expertise in the culinary arts. I've come to regard them as harbingers of bellyaches to come, a role they certainly played during my outings to Armadillo Grill, on Camelback Road near 20th Street.
Of course, there were other signs. Sports bars are not usually known for their grub, and off-track betting centers, less so. That's two strikes against AG, but a former New Times scribe did grant the tavern a positive mention many moons past. And here in my e-mail inbox was a recently received message from a PR flack telling me that Armadillo had "completed an expansion/remodeling/rebirth" and that "the time is ripe for an updated review." Seems Armadillo had added a new nonsmoking section too. How bad could it be?
1904 East Camelback Road, Phoenix
Thai Chicken Skewers: $6.99
Coconut Shrimp: $8.99
Beef Stroganoff: $8.99
Roast Beef Sandwich: $7.99
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily. (Full menu served until 12:30 a.m. Sunday through Thursday; until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.)
Before I answer that question, I should state that I have no problem with Armadillo as a saloon. Even as an OTB parlor, it retains the same smoke-filled fascination for me as do pool halls, bowling alleys and pawnshops. I mean, watching some old crone hack up half a lung trying to make it to the cashier's box to place a bet, all the while on her walker, is like something right out of a novel by Hubert Selby, Jr. During the day, the place is filled with senior citizens. At night, it's Pall Mall-puffin' alkies, bald dudes shootin' stick, and married men delaying the inevitable return home to wifey with one more pint of brew.
To its credit, much of the place is painted forest green, my favorite color. As for armadillos, they're funny little critters, even if they mostly seem to end up as road kill. AG's walls and dividers are decorated with replicas of these burrowing, armor-plated mammals, called "Hoover hogs" during the Depression, when some folks had to eat them for din-din. I suppose there are adventurous noshers who still do, though I never have, and no, there are none on AG's menu.
However, you might need a stomach of armadillo hide to successfully digest some of AG's entrees. By far the worst was the beef stroganoff on bowtie pasta. The pasta had been cooked too long, and was flaccid and mushy. Maybe the chef thinks "al dente" is where you go to get your teeth cleaned. The stroganoff was more like beef stew. Truly horrid. The beef itself had an odd aftertaste and sat in my stomach for hours afterward, an unwelcome tenant refusing to exit. I felt like poor Terri Schiavo, who (if her cerebral cortex kicked in) would be wishing someone would put a bullet in the Luger and end her freakin' misery.
I shiver at the thought of AG's tomatillo sauce, an icky green mess that's dumped all over the chicken enchilada plate. Normally, I love tomatillo sauce, but Armadillo's tasted like the microwaveable kind from a TV dinner -- way too sour, sour to the point of being almost inedible. I suggest AG's management stop by some place that does tomatillo sauce right, like nearly any mariscos joint, and beg, borrow or steal the recipe. If a mariscos place with its limited resources can pull it off, you can too.
The beef kebabs, served like three little shish with peppers and onions, were an improvement, in the sense they didn't gross me out, but the beef chunks were far too chewy. The whipped potatoes that came with them were surprisingly palatable, the mixed veggies nearly so. The roast beef sandwich was another matter. The shaved beef was too dry and the French bun was like something you pick up half-price in the day-old section of a bakery. I chose "veggie chips" as my side, and lived to regret it. These were actually brown parsnip shavings, by turns too tough or tasteless depending on what side of the pile I was picking from.
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One item I found agreeable was the smothered chicken, white-meat fillets over mashed potatoes, covered in pale mushroom gravy with a side of corn. Nothing fancy, but at least as good as what you'll get at, say, Denny's. I wouldn't go back for it, but it's one of the few things I'd order again if forced to choose.
I felt similarly about some of the appetizers. I admit a sort of fondness for the fried pickle skewers, which I imagine would taste all right if downed with massive amounts of beer. Same with the artichoke croquettes, fried balls of Brie and artichoke hearts proffered in pools of marinara and dill cream sauces. Not bad, by bar food standards.
The Thai chicken skewers were grotesque: based upon the idea of traditional satay, but without the tasty chicken or scrumptious peanut dipping sauce you'll find at a spot like Thai Rama. At AG, the chicken was hard and dry, and the sauce like Skippy mixed with chili oil. Yuck. The "coconut shrimp" was equally displeasing, mainly because the crustaceans were so candied that they were difficult to detect beneath it all.
I despised all the desserts, especially the bread pudding. Each time the waiter buzzed around asking me, "How does everything taste?" I mumbled, "Fine," but was tempted to scream, "You call this bread pudding, fool?!" and throttle him 'til unconscious. Topped by a praline "cookie" that was hard as a rock, this stale cube of pseudo-pastry was arid despite the "bourbon cream sauce" all about it that tasted like condensed milk. Most distressing. But then, I suppose if you've just lost a bundle on the ponies at OTB, gambling on heartburn will be the least of your worries.