Up, Up and Olé
Gecko Grill doesn't simply do good old-fashioned Mexican food. Oh no. The restaurant offers a full American barbecue menu, too, serving baby back ribs alongside its burritos.
If this seems like an ambitious pairing, it is. Real barbecue lovers won't stand for so-so smoked meats and sauces, and with quality Mexican restaurants a dime a dozen in the Valley, there's no room for second-runs.
But the Gecko pulls it off, pleasing followers of both types of food. The kitchen consistently delivers satisfying, gringo-friendly Sonoran-style Mexican food alongside tasty mesquite-smoked 'cue. Either of these concepts could stand well enough alone; together, they're even better.
Gecko Grill is a familiar name -- it opened about five years ago. That was when the joint, run by the Moreno family, was located in a charmless strip mall on Baseline east of Gilbert Road, its equally low-ambiance interior dominated by a blaring television set. This is the new and improved Gecko, though. Enough people craved the chimis and barbecue to inspire the Morenos to relocate and expand, opening a shiny new shop in a shiny new mall this spring.
The change is a welcome one. This Gecko is prettier in pink, done up in baby-hued walls, tile floors, ceilings, booths and silk bougainvillea. Chopping up the candy fest are viga poles supporting faux-tile patio roofs, gecko-inlaid floor tiles here and there, carved wooden chairs for the diners and a classy, carved-wood work station for staffers. It's perfect for its strip-mall surroundings -- cleverly accessorized, not intimidating, reliably tasty and affordable. Gecko Grill is the Mary Kay of Mexican food.
There's nothing cutting-edge about the cuisine, with its standard tacos, tamales, enchiladas, burros, tostadas and such. This certainly isn't where to go for assertive spicing or surprises. What we get are honest, well-flavored dishes that rely on fresh ingredients instead of gussied-up presentation or overpowering heat to wake us up.
The sleepy tomatillo sauce and timid red sauce aren't worth the space on the table, but a ramekin of bean dip is excellent, all creamy and deep with a chile punch. Spread on perfect, crisp chips dusted with lots of salt, the legumes are a superb start.
The freebies are filling enough, however, that appetizers are unnecessary. There's nothing too interesting here, anyway, with choices including a quesadilla, nachos or queso dip. Head instead to the specialties, such as an appealingly offbeat shrimp quesadilla. The flour tortilla is folded and stuffed with healthy portions of shrimp, cheese, silky seafood sauce and the unexpected spark of fresh mango cubes. Relleno is another notable choice, the roasted chile plump with crab and creamy white sauce or bloated with cheese under a mild-mannered green sauce.
I'm smitten with the spinach enchiladas, the plate cradling two slender bundles tucked with juicy leaves and draped in a delightful jalapeño cream cheese sauce. There's a rich blend of spice in this dish, tempered nicely by the slightly bitter spinach stuffing and sided with southwestern corn kernels dotted with red pepper and scallion. The same jalapeño cheese sauce makes the everyday chimichanga better, too, the fried package bulging with chicken, pork or beef.
Just as interesting are "two of a kind" tacos, which is a duo of fish, shrimp or one of each. These tacos feature firm, grilled white fish and sautéed shrimp kicked up with chopped purple cabbage and pineapple. A dreamy, sugary glaze of honey butter makes them terrific. And the tampiquena scores with two fine filets of marinated, charbroiled steak, paired with a cheese enchilada moistened with the green chile sauce, plus little tortilla cups of guacamole and pico de gallo.
Even a routine combo plate becomes noteworthy, thanks to the beef in a burrito, stuffed with shredded meat tinged with wood smoke, plus whole pinto beans and diced tomato. A chicken taco makes a trusty sidekick, the two soft white corn tortillas brimming with moist chicken breast, iceberg and white cheese.
Gecko gets into higher gear with its barbecue, putting some serious spark into its hot sauce, a thin concoction that's tart like fruit, while packing a true chile clobber. I love searing spice, but the medium version's all I can handle with the Louisiana hot link, a smoldering sausage with crisp casing that snaps against a squishy egg bun. The fowl, though, leans toward dry; without sauce, this bird would be boring. Pulled pork doesn't do it, either, moist and tender but swimming under a sauce so sugary it tastes candied.
Baby back pork ribs are remarkable, however, tearing from the bone at the gentlest tug with no hint of fat or gristle. No overpowering smoky tones here, just top-quality meat. They more than make up for the weak showing of the sides, a twice-baked potato that's nothing better than a half russet baked with Cheddar topping, lacking any of the whipped-spud interior it promises, or coleslaw that's the same the world over. But the beans are beautiful, swimming in that confectionary sauce with a powerful punch.
Gecko Grill is all dressed up now, and with no place to go . . . but up.
Blue Agave has been tinkering with its menu since it threw open the doors in January. Gone is a relatively straightforward listing of classic Mexican standards. In is what management calls "A New Way to Mexican Cuisine." Nuevo, no. I say this approach is nuts.
In fact, Blue Agave is such a mess, the only thing that could drag me in again is the soothing serenades of crooner David Grossman, a first-class singer who performs in the bar on Tuesday nights. Even then, several shots of tequila would be required.
Blue Agave wants to be a hip gathering spot -- witness the bar in the entry area, and the high-tech decor of polished concrete floors, metal agave sculptures on orange-sponged walls and a showcase wall of blue backlit plastic. The bar does good business, actually. Yet Agave wants to be an eclectic restaurant, too, at least to look at the newly complicated menu -- flat grilled shrimp and fried poblano peppers with chipotle ranch dipping and guava barbecue sauces?
But it doesn't want to do the work. Without exception, the food is flawed, arriving incomplete, inaccurate as described on the menu and in some cases simply awful. Service is amateur hour, with plates slammed unceremoniously in front of us (Who gets the tuna? our party of two is asked, when we're one of only three parties in the place). The place isn't even clean.
Who's managing the host stand, cluttered as it is with a Windex bottle, boxes of crayons, picture hangers, a staff scheduling book, unopened bills and newspapers? Probably the same guy responsible for maintenance -- the floor positively crunches as we step over fallen tortilla chips. The silverware is grungy, cloth napkins are sometimes rolled, sometimes wadded and the exposed insulation batting hanging from the ceiling is creepy. Even takeout containers arrive trampled, the aluminum boxes crushed on the sides and haphazardly crimped on top.
This is supposed to be a place for cutting-edge, beautiful-people Scottsdale?
Chips are wonderful, it's true, scalpel thin and salty. But how are we to eat them, served with little cracked-plastic jars of salsa? Our server tells us to "just dunk them," but these chips are too large to navigate the rims, and we're not about to plunk our eats into condiment containers that obviously aren't changed out for each table. Why bother, anyway? The odd tomato purée has no oomph whatsoever, and a supposed hot sauce is like a chile-spiked, sludgy barbecue sauce. Ick.
I don't know what to make of a Baja tuna roll appetizer except tracks. Seared ahi has been rolled in Spanish rice, dunked in chipotle cream, wrapped in a flour tortilla and cut into egg-roll-size bites, then plunked into a neon-purple pool of sangria rimmed with dots of wasabi jalapeño cream. Yes, it's as ugly as it sounds, the dry tuna edged with what vaguely looks like fur. It's just plain weird as the tortilla slowly wicks up the purple pond like a paper towel. Oddly, the whole thing doesn't taste too bad, once rescued from its bath.
Tortilla chili, however, is as dull as its presentation. More broth than stew, it ripples with butter-heavy tones clunked up with bits of dry chicken here, bits of green chile there, sprinkles of navy beans and what might be flecks of chorizo.
Someone in the kitchen is sadistic with sauces, strangling a passable chicken breast, mushroom and sun-dried tomato enchilada in a horrifically bitter coat that's supposed to be roasted red pepper. And char-grilled tequila herb chicken (from the old menu but available on request) smacks of neither condiment, instead coming with a careless topping of sautéed white onion and red pepper (not the promised cucumber and cilantro). Rice studded with past-its-prime pico is a throwaway, and how does current cuisine translate into sides of almost raw steamed cauliflower and broccoli blasted with cayenne?
A massive relleno is packed with bring-us-to-our-knees fire, purportedly poblano but rabid with heat. Too bad, because the beef tenderloin, rice and cheese stuffing is fine, and a topping of creamy chipotle sauce is fabulous.
Messing with a chimichanga leads to no good end, either. We get two split, petite triangles fried to a greasy turn and drizzled with pale orange crème. Stuffings are subpar: sweet-toned beef chunks, dry chicken or flabby shrimp salvaged only by mounds of cheeses and sour cream. So where's the sauce on the fish taco? Sure, a premier version needs no gilding, but this heavily breaded, fried halibut à la Long John Silver's wouldn't sink under a ladleful of the promised creamy chipotle sauce and lime. It's not a taco, anyway, but a wrap, cut in quarters and weakly decorated with smidgens of avocado and shredded purple cabbage plus sides of musty rice and parched refrieds.
We're offered a cocktail list at lunch: good thing, since our plates are so poor. An ahi sandwich is simply okay, overcooked and paired with fries done up in old oil. Shrimp pasta taste (at this point, thankfully) of nothing, just a bland toss of so-called jalapeño fettuccine (not linguini as stated), tiny, under-cleaned shrimp and oily cheese chipotle glue.
Blue Agave owners can keep reinventing the menu, but until the management, kitchen and maintenance crew get in the game, it's a waste of time. Hot pickup spot or not, for good eats the Blue Agave doesn't deserve another date.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.