Come to Coach & Willie's for the cocktails, but not the food.
Come to Coach & Willie's for the cocktails, but not the food.
Erik Guzowski

Vittle League

The headlines scream that the Diamondbacks aren't making money. Attendance is down, and the baseball team is struggling. All eyes are on Jerry Colangelo to fix things.

I've got a suggestion: Rather than pump more cash into hotshot player salaries, give the fans something palatable to munch on while cheering for the home team. Please. The cantina grub served at Bank One Ballpark is wholly unappetizing and overpriced.

Barring a complete revamp of vendors inside, Colangelo should focus on wooing some worthy enterprises for out-of-park feeding. If downtown is to be such a gathering place -- attracting clientele comfortable enough to afford expensive game tickets -- why is there such a lack of quality eats nearby?

We don't need another sports bar like Alice Cooper'stown or Hi-Tops. And we sure don't need a restaurant like Coach & Willie's, such a sad salute to dreary American dining that even several pitchers of beer can't salvage the experience.

Coach & Willie's opened last October, just on the edge of the train tracks at Third Street and Jackson behind America West Arena. It closed briefly a month later when a neighboring business erupted in flames. Only a few of the restaurant's windows were broken then. If only the flames had taken out the kitchen. Because Coach & Willie's is the kind of why-bother, overpriced restaurant that clings to a captive sports-fan audience like fungus on an athlete's foot.

Like any self-important sports celebrity, the look is handsome, dressed in sophisticated tan, black and mahogany, with tile floors, natural rock accents and a pretty patio with a waterfall that's soothing when it can be heard over the rumbling, horn-bellowing freight trains that roar by (they pass every hour or so, moans our waitress).

It's also small, with a half-dozen booths, plus a few dozen seats around the horseshoe bar and tall seats on the indoor-outdoor patio. Cozy it ain't, though -- televisions are the focal point. And though the place is virtually empty at an 11:15 lunch, no, our party of two can't have a booth, we're told. They're reserved for parties of four or more. Ah, well, the lounge seating gives us priority view as a staffer lugs in a huge sack of frozen, warehouse-variety chicken wings, stomping past us into the kitchen.

Coach & Willie's promotes its homemade pizzas and pastas, and if we were to stick to those staples, the dining experience would be passable. Pizzas are hand-spun and come fresh from a wood-burning oven visible from a copper-hooded exposition kitchen.

Traditional pies like Italian sausage and artichoke hearts are well crafted, with lots of fennel-studded meat and fresh vegetables on a tangy bed of garlic and olive oil blended with mozzarella and provolone cheese. Another mix of prosciutto, and portabella is dynamite -- the Italian ham delightfully salty and nicely tempered by the meaty mushrooms, olive oil and leafy arugula. And if the crust were more fully baked, a roma and basil pie would be worth revisiting, layering ample marinated tomatoes, garlic and fresh basil with more mozzarella and provolone.

A barbecue chicken pie loads mild sauce, red onion, cilantro, chicken breast and mozzarella cheese for an effective nosh, though a "BORP" pizza needs rethinking -- in name, and in ingredients. A chop of black olive and red pepper is boring in black and red, spread on a too-subtle garlic-and-olive-oil crust with mozzarella and provolone.

The kitchen cranks out homemade pasta daily, and cooks it to a competent al dente. Too bad the chefs don't take as much care with the sauces -- even the freshest pasta doesn't stand a chance under this assault. The Alfredo's star ingredient may well be wallpaper paste, rather than butter and cream.

And how hard is it to make red sauce? Coach & Willie's marinara fettuccine sickens with that distinctively musty aroma of burned garlic, and no hint of the artichoke hearts, red onion or cabernet flavors listed on the menu.

The staple of any sports bar is snacks, and there are few surprises in Coach & Willie's pre-game nibbles: nachos, quesadillas, calamari and chicken fingers. No foul with the nachos; it's hard to ruin fresh tortilla chips under a blanket of chicken, veggies, Cheddar and jack cheeses, jalapeños, black olives, guacamole, sour cream and salsa.

Those straight-from-the-freezer wings are inoffensive, too, if completely lacking heat in the "hot" version -- rather than ranch dressing and crisp celery sticks "to cool us down," this dish needs a pulse.

Coach & Willie's spinach dip is a secret, the menu says, and it's a secret worth keeping. Hopefully no other restaurant will attempt to duplicate this monstrosity of flaccid cheese, so greasy it's separated from itself -- perhaps in embarrassment. Adding insult, the soup-bowl serving has spent too much time under a broiler, its cap burned and pulling back like plastic wrap as we sludge through with tortilla and pita chips. The kitchen tries to get fancy with prawns, meanwhile, and fails profoundly -- rubbery shrimp aren't fresh, a wrapping of Italian ham is much too thickly sliced, and why in the world dunk these beasts in chunky marinara, except to hide the appetizer's unfortunate quality?

There's no salvation in salads, either. A "border" blend dumps tired lettuce and flabby tortilla chips with clumps of Cheddar and jack cheeses, wet shredded chicken, jalapeños, green onion, black olives, green chile salsa, guacamole and sour cream. The result? A colorful but soggy mess.

And though entrees come with a choice of dinner salad or soup, don't bother requesting a side salad with your pizza or pasta. Our only choice, our server advises, is to shell out $5.75 for a full-size house salad, a gross throwaway of wilted lettuce, pale tomato, cucumbers, red onion, Cheddar and jack cheeses and croutons. If this cheese is fresh-grated and not scooped from a bag, I'd like proof.

Even worse is the laughable lettuce that comes as a side to Coach & Willie's burgers, sandwiches and flatbread wraps. Isn't the "wedge" trend dead yet? Surely these greens are POWs, rough chunks of iceberg faded brown on the edge, spoiled with the hint of being refrigerated with onions, and swimming in runny dressing. French fries -- the other optional side -- are barely better, shoestring and skin-on, but suffering from raw spud flavor.

Coach & Willie's offers six burgers, and the basic meat passes muster. But if the kitchen is grinding its own turkey for the turkey burger -- as the menu states -- I'm demanding tableside preparation. This sandwich sure tastes prefab, with all the consistency and taste of wallboard. A massive, doughy roll adds nothing but gummy chew.

Pasty breads dampen already sorry flatbread wraps and sandwiches, too. A steak wrap pairs mealy filet mignon with mounds of sweet caramelized onions, nondescript cheese and slippery mushrooms in a runny bourbon and sour-mash whiskey sauce, all tucked in a bland, tortilla-like package.

And even the best bread couldn't rein in the Italian Stallion sandwich -- no less the stale, tough wheat roll that arrives on my plate. Where did the kitchen get this so-called mortadella, capicolla, pepperoni, prosciutto, mozzarella and provolone? I haven't seen meat this thick, so run through with fat and rind, and so weirdly orange, even in Third World countries. Condiments are a cacophony of red onion, sweet and hot peppers, Italian dressing (watery Thousand Island) and marinated olive relish, but even their clamor can't quiet the wailings of this hideous sandwich.

Coach & Willie's wants to be more than a sports bar, to look at the entrees offered, available both at lunch and dinner. Filet mignon with a béarnaise sauce for $21? Grilled shrimp and langostino, marinated in cilantro, lime, crushed red pepper sauce and tequila for $18? In a place where we can't even sit at a real table?

A meal starter of soup is no warm welcome. The signature soup is pure forgery of flavor. Is this Southwestern corn chowder, or glop straight from a can of sweet creamed corn? It's been tinkered with to no positive end, blended with a confetti of chiles and carrots, but no trace of the promised Cajun spices, bacon or heavy cream.

New York strip steak has been aged, I'll agree, but not in a certified manner. Leaving meat to sit until it's eventually ordered hardly qualifies. Ahi tuna, meanwhile, has been grilled past doneness, a dry, unhappy fish paired with a twice-baked potato lacking cheese but abundant with the consistency of Elmer's glue.

Even the worst places, it seems, manage to pull things together at dessert. Not so Coach & Willie's. A seriously overpriced roasted pear and amaretto pizza features just four dainty slices of pear on a too-thick sugar-cookie crust dolloped with vanilla ice cream -- and where are the sugared almonds?

Colangelo can recruit the biggest, brightest stars to head the Diamondbacks. He can work himself silly to promote the Valley's "Copper Square" as a destination area. But until there's food fit to eat here, the BOB experience is a bust.


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