Taco Shell Shock
Tee Pee Tap Room, 602 East Lincoln Street, Phoenix, 602-340-8787. Hours: Lunch and dinner, daily, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. On game nights, restaurant remains open one hour after game ends.
Downtown Phoenix dining hasn't gotten much respect, historically. Not only has the restaurant quality traditionally been pretty weak, but after 5 p.m., there's been little to do in the neighborhood except dodge homeless folks clogging the sidewalks in front of deserted office buildings.
The downtown revitalization of the '90s hoped to change all that. Our fearless city leaders launched an all-out assault on the social concerns, solving the drug/poverty/crime situation by plopping down a Hooter's, McDonald's and a couple of brew pubs amid the decay. They brought us arenas. They stuck a few pretty, purple-painted light poles into the sidewalks, screwed in some light bulbs, issued press releases and, voilà, took back the night.
So now Bank One Ballpark glows like a cozy candle in the window, inviting us to return after sunset. Nestled in its comforting radiance is a restaurant bearing one of the Valley's more familiar names: Tee Pee Tap Room, an offshoot of the long-standing eatery Tee Pee Mexican Food at 42nd Street and Indian School.
Unfortunately, this Tee Pee hardly improves the downtown dining scene. First of all, it only serves dinner until 8 p.m., unless there's a game in play, in which case it stays open an hour after the final score is called. No foul there; that's the economics of running a business, and until a true downtown society emerges, what can we expect?
Yet even with my skepticism of the "pack 'em in and feed 'em before the game starts" mentality that inspired the eatery's expansion into the downtown area two years ago, I'm surprised at how poorly this place performs. I go in expecting to welcome an old friend; instead, I'm ambushed by a traitor. Rather than a sweet kiss hello, I'm assaulted by its fetid breath in my face (and it smells like enchilada sauce).
I don't get it. I've always enjoyed the original Tee Pee. It's been there since 1958, the golden child of two brothers and their wives, John and Gizella Hurguy and Mary and Bill Hurguy. In 1960, the Hurguys sold the shop to its present owners Tony (the Hurguys' accountant) and Anna Duran. Today, it's still in the clan, operated by the Durans' daughter, Kathy Killeen.
Tee Pee is a local landmark of sorts, adored by celebrities including painter/sculptor Fritz Scholder ("The Tee Pee has the world's greatest chile relleno"), Bill Andres, co-host of KESZ's "Beth and Bill" morning show ("My last meal would include a chile relleno from Tee Pee"), Today show weather guy Willard Scott ("I got taco lips -- as soon as I get to town, I hit Tee Pee"), late columnist Erma Bombeck, sports mogul Jerry Colangelo and actor/comedian David Spade ("Great egg rolls").
It's won numerous "Best of" and "Reader's Pick" awards, in categories including salsa, burritos, margaritas and best Mexican restaurant overall. Even folks with professional taste buds tout Tee Pee. Esteemed chef Vincent Guerithault confides that on his nights off he often orders Tee Pee's nachos with beans and extra jalapeño peppers, plus beef or fresh green corn tamales. A 1996 issue of Bon Appétit includes Tee Pee as a favorite "Chef's Night Out" indulgence.
Tee Pee has always been revered for its comforting, dark dinginess; its "presentation, what presentation?" disregard for frou-frou plates; and its dependable, cheap Mexican-American eats. It's a killer place in which to limp through a hangover.
With such solid lineage, the Tee Pee property just south of the railroad tracks couldn't be that much different, I assumed. It's run by Art "Zip" Killeen, Kathy's husband, an employee of the original Tee Pee for almost 30 years. When he opened this branch, he brought along the original recipes and one of the original chefs (17 years and still counting).
And actually, meals start out just fine. But hang on. This affiliate is not the cuddly cucina we've known lo these many years.
The new place certainly resembles the original, with no big bucks spent on decor. The joint is a minimalist bunker, with brown concrete floors, white block walls and bars on the windows. Rations are served at Formica tables under the fatigued gaze of piñatas that have suffered through too many happy hours.
It's quiet tonight; given it's a non-game evening, my dining companion and I have almost the entire restaurant to ourselves. (Beware busy times, however -- when the boxy dining room is packed to its wood-beam rafters, diners have to shout to be heard over the din.)
We settle in to unwind after a long, hard day. Good chips and salsa seduce us into reckless comfort, as crisp, baked tortilla bits disappear under great heaps of spicy salsa and the fiery hot sauce served at our request.
After packing away a green chile Mary-Lou, my companion and I are completely relaxed, lulled by the original Tee Pee's signature appetizer. For the uninitiated, a Mary-Lou is simply a stuffed cheese crisp. But it's another Valley legend, named after the late Mary Lou Sauer, a Scottsdale native and longtime Tee Pee groupie. Our model is delicious, with a perfectly grilled tortilla folded over melted Cheddar, chunk tomato and properly wet shredded beef.
On later visits, a cheese crisp appetizer topped with roasted green chile strips is passable, and a chorizo pizza is terrific. Whole chile strips, chopped tomato and onion, aggressive spice and lots of wonderfully dusky chorizo frolic under gooey Jack and Cheddar cheeses. My companion and I are happy.
Even when our server makes a highly unprofessional bitter-beer face after I ask about the Sonora enchilada entree ("it's a layered kind of thing, really nothing special," he reports), I feel right at home. It's a totally Tee Pee kind of honesty.
So when Tee Pee deploys its first bomb, there's no time to scramble for cover. It comes quick and brutal, in the deafening thud of a green chile burrito combo plate. It's the same meat as in my Mary-Lou, but viciously dry and chewy, snarling at me from the table. Refried beans and rice have sat in the kitchen far too long, arriving dehydrated and barely able to gasp their salty insults. My taco, too, is a gruesome smattering of oatmeal-like ground beef in a weathered tortilla poncho.
My companion is having equal difficulty with his enchiladas. These guys are nothing more than onion and undercooked corn tortillas tripped up in a quicksand of way too much melted Cheddar and bland chile sauce.
"¡Muy sabrosas!"(very good!) the menu teases us about Tee Pee's beef fajitas. But it's a lie. Sullen strips of liver-textured meat obviously have been forced into duty; they'd much rather be hanging out in a dark alley somewhere, kicking over trash cans. The little hoodlums aren't helped at all by an overwhelming toss of sautéed onion and a truly noxious guacamole that's more soup than topping.
However indelicate his communication, it seems our server was right on target with his Jaegermeister-like grimace for the Sonora enchilada. Somewhere on the plate, a valiant little cheese-and-onion-glazed corn tortilla struggles, but soon expires under a tidal wave of hugely vinegared chile sauce. There are no layers, no content, no real food. What in the world is this dish supposed to be?
At least the Sonora "soup" is lightweight. Our table rocks when Tee Pee lobs its machaca chimichanga. While the chimi includes nicely juicy shredded beef tossed with tomato and onion, we find this only after dispatching meat-sniffing dogs to dig through the wreckage of soggy, much-too-greasy fried tortilla. The real problem, though? This chimi has wilted under a heat lamp, rendering its topping of sour cream, guacamole, cheese and buckets of enchilada sauce into an unappetizing quagmire.
By the time we confront our completely tasteless chicken taco, nothing can startle us. It looks like it should be good, my companion sighs, yet the poultry is bland and Styrofoam-textured.
And then come the tamales. Get hit by one of these, and it'll knock you cold. The green corn version, even with masa the texture of cotton balls dressed with skimpy chile, Jack and Cheddar filling, is harmless enough. But its chile sauce makes my eyes water with a horrid, metallic aroma.
A beef tamale is worse. Dry, shredded innards are like Easter grass, the masa resembling corn bread. And though the hefty package contains generous amounts of meat, it's like chewing on an Army boot. No thanks.
The downtown version of Tee Pee's famous chile relleno is the nail in the coffin, as far as I'm concerned. Chile relleno is a subjective taste in the Valley, to be sure. We have so many versions of the dish, it's difficult to assign an archetype. Usually, it's a pretty hearty undertaking of mild chile, cheese and egg batter, in that order. Often, it's deep fried.
Tee Pee's take is egg, egg, egg, with chile and cheese, baked as a soufflé. Yes, it's enormous (one relleno squats over an entire dinner plate). Yes, it's admirably fresh (each relleno is cooked to order; budget at least 15 minutes for preparation). Yes, it's light (without an official calorie count, it's a better dieter's choice than most other Tee Pee offerings). But what we get here is not what made Indian School's relleno famous. This dish is a ponderous mass of eggs, a gargantuan meringue of fluff tucked with a few teeny strips of chile and a couple of tablespoons of Cheddar. I take a few bites, then toss it away.
How much do I want to like this place? Based on its heritage, a lot. Yet, until Tee Pee downtown brings us the same food served at its original location, it's not worthy of our esteem.
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