There's a Lot Going for El Chorro Lodge; Pity the Food Isn't
On my first trip to Arizona, a friend took me to El Chorro Lodge in Paradise Valley. It was the '80s; that's where you took visitors. And with good reason. The property looked like a set built for a John Ford movie — the fading sunset, cactus-spotted desert, and dusty stucco building complete with a hitching post outside. I was even promised a sighting of crusty cowboy types. What sticks in my memory from that visit is the rustic, worn-out but welcoming feel of the place — and some awesome sticky buns. I don't remember the rest of the meal.
Beautiful in its simplicity, the newly renovated El Chorro still casts its ambient Western charm. A newly constructed archway announces the entrance to the expanded wrap-around patio. Small intimate lounge areas hug new outdoor fireplaces, adding choice patio spots to take advantage of the view. The bar now commands a central indoor-outdoor space connecting the patio to the dining areas.
The small, dark, interconnected dining rooms have been expanded and brightened. Historic photographs and Western pop art accent the interior walls in a colorful mix of old and new. The open wall in the main dining room frames an imposing view of Mummy Mountain, and, in the bar, a cleverly exposed piece of wall shows off a sample of recycled blue jean insulation, an example of why El Chorro became the first restaurant in Arizona to receive a Gold Certification (LEED) from the U.S. Green Building Council Leadership for Environmental and Energy Design.
With its crisp update, El Chorro Lodge is still a must-visit place to soak up atmosphere in a relaxed Old West setting. But you're better off sticking to drinks on the patio before heading to dinner at one of the Valley's better restaurants, because like the enduring views, another unchanged element at El Chorro is the fact that the food simply isn't very good.
If only the innovative leadership and demand for high quality that guided the renovation of El Chorro applied to the kitchen. I wonder: What stands in the way of such a reputable team — owner Jacquie Dorrance, operating partners Tim and Kristy Moore, and executive chef Charles Kassels — matching the kick-ass setting with kick-ass food?
The descriptions may have changed, but sadly this place still offers familiar, mostly dated American food that is mediocre at its best. My disappointment in El Chorro is not with the early- and mid-20th-century menu items themselves, per se, but with the bland and boring execution of those dishes.
For my money, a gorgeous venue is not enough when there are Valley choices like T. Cook's and Lon's at the Hermosa, where food and service match the charming surroundings.
As I walked in from the back parking lot at El Chorro, I noticed the chef's garden was brimming with fresh herbs, leafy greens, and spring vegetables. The presence of a working garden can be a statement about the care and craft of the kitchen's food. But, in this case, it was clearly window dressing. On my visits, the garden's bounty barely made a showing outside of garnishing drinks and plates of food.
In the early evening, the crowd at the bar mirrors the men's-only bar at a country club — with a dress code of freshly pressed 19th-hole golf shirts and Bermuda shorts. Tables in the bar, patio, and dining room fill on weekends with gentrified locals and vacationers.
A basket of warm, coiled sticky buns appeared quickly on the table. The only detectable change from the past is in size; smaller than their former self, they are still a sweet, doughy delight. The bulk of the lunch, brunch, and dinner menus represents dishes that are a flashback to American restaurant classics: wedge salad, shrimp Louie, pan-seared trout, and beef stroganoff.
Southwestern flavors are promised in the Santa Fe chicken enchiladas, fish tacos, breakfast burrito, and Chorro dusted whole roasted chicken. A few dishes — mostly starters, including heirloom tomato and burrata salad, artisan cheese and charcuterie platter, and oven-roasted beet salad — reflect more recent menu trends.
I advise you skip the soup of the day. A first try with potato leek soup was a letdown. It was thin in body and missed the kind of flavor expected from a soup blended from layered ingredients. The broccoli soup was downright watery and bland, the lack of seasoning its most memorable feature.
The service for lunch and brunch was timely and attentive without being overbearing. But after my dinner experience, I expected my bill to be delivered with the line, "You've been punk'd!"
Dinner entrées included a choice of house salad or soup. For an additional $5 (versus the $9 to $13 à la carte charge), we could switch out the house salad, our server told us. The organic Caesar comes with polenta croutons, soft rather than crisp on the outside; my dinner companion compared the texture to French toast, which is odd for a salad. The tomato and burrata, the wedge, and even the oven-roasted beet all missed the flavor of distinctive ingredients and dressing.
A Dungeness crab cake appetizer was burnt on the bottom, and the dill in the aioli failed to do more than add colored flecks. Pacific black mussels in white wine garlic herb sauce and chorizo arrived at the table smelling like heated canned pet food. Taking one for the team, I attempted to overcome the offensive odor and sampled a mussel. It missed its natural briny flavor and any aroma of white wine and garlic. The bowl was pushed as far to the side as possible to shield us from the smell.
Our server took one look at the still-full plate of mussels and asked what was wrong. When we noted the odd, off-putting aroma, she advised that we didn't know what mussels should taste like and maybe we shouldn't order them again. With that, she suffered a second strike for the front of the house to add to the one for the kitchen. Both the mussels and the server's comments were offensive.
Our party tried some El Chorro classics for dinner: oven-fried chicken, Scottish salmon, center-cut filet, and classic beef stroganoff. A pork porterhouse was served instead of the ordered beef stroganoff. Our server, visibly busy with side work, never came back to the table after the entrées were served. It took 10 minutes to flag down a server and another 20 minutes for the kitchen to send out the stroganoff; when it arrived, the dish included chewy pieces of meat, and the dried-out sauce was missing its signature creaminess.
The center-cut filet was one entrée my group agreed we would order again. But the sides — salted scalloped potatoes and glazed carrots — paled in comparison to those served by another Phoenix institution, Durant's.
Chef Kassels has a reputation for blending Southwestern ingredients with French technique during his stints at Santa Fe's The Old House, Scottsdale's Westin Kierland, and The Boulders in Carefree. Eager for some Southwest flavors at lunch, my dining companion and I sampled the Santa Fe chicken enchiladas and the fish tacos.
The enchiladas were served casserole-style in a hungry-man-size iron skillet. Piquinto beans and cotija cheese added interest to the traditional tortilla-and-chicken preparation. But too much thick red chile drowned out the clean and fresh-tasting green chile. The halibut tacos proved to be a more gratifying choice. Pickled onion and red chile mayo complemented the crunchy shaved cabbage and tender fish.
Brunch remains the meal to enjoy at El Chorro Lodge. Listed along with the Date Shake at the top of the brunch menu, the Tangerine Freeze was a refreshing and sweet remembrance of Phoenix's long gone fruit and drink stands.
The applewood-smoked salmon appetizer was ample enough to be an entrée. The salmon was silky with a perfect note of smokiness. Caper-topped arugula coated with vinaigrette and sprinkled with cracked pepper enhanced the heirloom tomato and shaved red onion accompaniment.
Jumbo shrimp in the shrimp cocktail and the shrimp Louie delivered on size and succulence, but neither the cocktail sauce nor the Louie dressing rivaled what comes out of a bottle.
Pan-seared rainbow trout was prepared amandine-style and matched the desired flaky doneness of the fish in the fish tacos. Painfully plain, the olive oil poached potatoes and green beans would have benefited from a sprinkling of herbs from the chef's garden.
More satisfying were the eggs Benedict. The English muffin was delightfully thick, with crusty edges and a fluffy interior. Wondering whether it was housemade, we were told it comes from a bakery in Oregon. The Hollandaise was more creamy than tangy. The sides, asparagus and roasted tomato, as in all the dishes sampled, were cooked tender but tasted dull and unseasoned. Bland finishes seemed to be a theme here.
Dessert was a bright spot and the chef's specials were worth saving room for. Sharing is the way to tackle the ample serving of the housemade red velvet cake or daily special — on my visits, a lemon cake and a chocolate pie. The moist cakes and tender-crusted pie made a pleasing end to a humdrum meal.
And hey, there's always that view.
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