My editor likes me to start this column with a bang. A funny anecdote, a clever sentence. This week, I am so unmoved by my eating experiences at Tempe's new Acapulco Bay Beach Club and Cantina del Pedregal at the Boulders in Carefree, she's lucky to have even this dull paragraph.

You see, I don't hate or love these two "fun" Mexican restaurants. Which makes it tough. If I hated them, I could easily wax vitriolic and write a scathing review that would leave their staff members in tears. Maybe I'd provoke a few phone calls, an irate letter from a loyal customer.

But I don't hate Acapulco Bay Beach Club and Cantina del Pedregal.
I just don't happen to like them, either.
Let me attempt to explain why.

If you were to list the reasons to visit Acapulco Bay Beach Club, food and service would not be among them. The food is routinely mediocre. The staff is young and inexperienced.

On one visit, our waiter doesn't know when to leave us alone. "How is everything?" he asks. "How's that shrimp cocktail?" "Fine," my dining accomplice and I mumble through chews. We give him an intense smile. We hope he will go away.

But, no. This guy is impervious to all the usual signals. He hounds us to know how the food is. Asks us more times than necessary if we want more chips, more drinks, more salsa. He tells us where's he's from, how long he's been a waiter, what his favorite foods are. "Let me know if I can do anything else," he says. I am tempted to ask him to stop pestering us. But it's difficult. I know he's just being sincere, friendly.

On another visit, a different waiter has just the opposite affliction. This young man is a zombie. He appears to have no personality. He never offers us another drink, abstains from inquiring if we like our food and has to be asked to remove plates when we're finished. He brings our entrees before we are finished with our appetizers. This guy makes Mr. Chatterbox look like the prince of compassion.

Still, one gets the feeling that he's trying. Yeah, as in trying to remember everything he's supposed to do. Timing? Well, that's advanced waitering.

Ironically, this Acapulco Bay Beach Club is being heralded as the "first certifiably drug-free restaurant in the United States." This campaign was mounted after a splashy drug sweep a couple of years ago in the parking lot in front of the restaurant at Tower Plaza. New owner Brian Weymouth is the founder of the Coalition of Restaurant Employees and Employers against Drugs (CREED). Applicants are drug-tested during the hiring process and those hired are subject to random checks during their employment. While I applaud Weymouth's efforts to discourage young people from doing drugs--especially on the job--his new restaurant is a living example that "drug-free" doesn't automatically mean "better."

This applies to the behind-the-scenes staff as well. I'm glad to know Acapulco Bay Beach Club's cooks aren't high, but I wish their products weren't so earthbound and unexceptional.

The only item worthy of even limited praise is the black bean soup, which is thick and hot and topped with avocado chunks, grated cheese and jalapenos.

The rest is dreck. Though seafood is emphasized on the menu, shrimp are typically mealy and devoid of flavor. A grilled swordfish steak topped with pumpkin seeds is boring. The seafood fajita is small for the price and so highly seasoned you cannot taste the sizzling chopped crab, shrimp and scallops. Whitefish ceviche lacks the proper amount of lime; the fish is rubbery and tasteless. And don't bother with the Mexican-style shrimp cocktail. Save your pennies for Mariscos Chihuahua or San Carlos Bay Seafood Restaurant. Acapulco Bay Beach Club's version is an unfortunate cross between a traditional American ketchup-and-horseradish shrimp cocktail and the Gulf of California variety.

As for the rest, refried beans and rice are starchy throwaways. A green chile burro called "Mrs. Santistevan's Burrito Verde" is laughable: Most of the filling in this bland, cheese-sauce-topped ten-incher is shredded lettuce, chopped tomato and big hunks of white potato. Inside the doughy flour tortilla, I discover maybe four or five chunks of pot-roasted beef and slivers of green chile. Do not waste your time with this Mexican pot pie.

Desserts are dismal. Fried ice cream is the only listed offering available. I receive a scoop of vanilla ice cream rolled in what tastes like apple-cinnamon oat cereal, topped with aerosol whipped cream. Despite the inconsequential food and irritating service, there are things to like about Acapulco Bay Beach Club. The restaurant is spacious and festive. The interior is a patchwork of tropical colors: lime green, lemon yellow, orange orange. Under the simulated thatched hut where we are sitting, metal signs advertising Bimbo bread and Fiesta cigarettes compete with Mexican license plates for attention. "Wow," says my dining accomplice. "There's no place for your eye to rest." (Parents of small children, take note: I've seen babies mesmerized here.)

Finally, I like the view from the patio and west windows of the restaurant, which overlook a manmade pond complete with weeping willow. It is very soothing.

Acapulco Bay Beach Club offers drink specials during happy hour. It also seems like a great place to see a band. The acoustics are much better than the original Tower Plaza restaurant. There is a small stage with a dance floor partitioned off from the rest of the restaurant. The crowd, for the most part, is young and lively.

But don't go for the food--or if you do, don't expect much.

Cantina del Pedregal replaced Los Mayas, which opened last year but didn't survive the summer. Though the menu has been revised, the prehistoric pueblo decor is virtually unchanged, right down to the glassware. Have my feelings about the place altered? Well, not much. I still don't see the point of expensive pseudo-south-of-the-border food when we live in a place where there are so many authentic Mexican restaurants.

But then, I'm not a vacationer from a cold climate or a winter-only resident or an out-of-town businessman lodged nearby for a resort meeting. These are the people who make up the crowd packed into Cantina the night we visit. The restaurant is so busy that, despite reservations, we must wait for a table.

It is a strange evening. Earlier, on the undulating drive up dark Scottsdale Road, my dining accomplice informs me that he has been laid off by the electronics company that employed him for the last seven years. This puts me (but not him) in the mood for a drink, a traditional margarita with salt on the rim. I like Cantina's version. It's tart and sweet and salty and effective.

I also like the chips at Cantina. They come in several colors: yellow and orange and blue. The yellow are regular corn chips. The blue are blue corn chips. The orange are chili-corn chips. The tomatoey salsa is good enough.

But nothing else here impresses me.
Nachos el Pedregal features dried clumps of black beans, cheese, chorizo and canned sliced jalapenos on multicolored chips. Sonoran crab cakes are flat and spicy but ultimately nondescript--even with the tasty jicama-carrot relish. A grilled chicken-avocado salad has no eye appeal: The sliced chicken breast sits atop a bed of mundane shredded lettuce preseasoned with Italian dressing; the mango salsa that accompanies it is oversalted. Six decent-sized Gulf shrimp are mildly spiced but unspectacular.

We do not stay for dessert. My margarita will have to do.
The waitstaff wears black shorts and polo shirts colored raspberry, red and purple. They're young, but much more professional than the staff at Acapulco Bay Beach Club. Our waitress is prompt and attentive.

So, I like the chips. I like the heavy blue-rimmed glasses. I like the way, on the night we visit, it smells like roasting marshmallows outside. But would I drive all the way up to Carefree to eat at Cantina again?

I'd rather have the real thing for a lot less.

Acapulco Bay Beach Club, 1470 East Southern, Tempe, 831-7500. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Dinner, 4 to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

Cantina del Pedregal, 34505 North Scottsdale Road, Carefree, 488-0715. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

acapulco bay

This young man is a zombie. He appears to have no personality. He never offers us another drink.

I'm glad to know Acapulco Bay Beach Club's cooks aren't high, but I wish their products weren't so earthbound and unexceptional.

cantina el pedregal

I still don't see the point of expensive pseudo-south-of-the-border food when we live in a place with authentic Mexican restaurants.

I like the chips at the Cantina. The tomatoey salsa is good enough. But nothing else here impresses me.


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