West World

Co-owner Tom Mills shows Territorial can be tasty when it sticks to the basics.
Leah Fasten

There's a new book out called Zeguts. It should not be confused with the international restaurant guide of the similar name, Zagat. Because while both track dining establishments and rate them on similar terms of concept, food quality and ambiance, Zeguts is strictly a parody of made-up establishments.

At least I think it is. Tongue-in-cheek restaurants reviewed in Zeguts include bizarre high-concept eateries such as Ssshhh! -- a "New Age/ascetic" dining experience run by Trappist monks ("hordes of diners wait hours on line to be 'seriously deprived' of the 'most basic culinary requirements'"), and pseudo-fusion orgies like Serf's Up (Old English/Hawaiian).

But anymore, it's difficult to categorize many restaurants on a traditional level, like simple Italian, Japanese, American or French. Creative restaurateurs lure in today's more adventurous diners with eclectic and sometimes outright baffling culinary combinations. Parody is defined as humorous imitation of real life, and perhaps Zeguts is speaking closer to the heart than we realize.

Because now it's finally happened: That old, untouchable favorite -- down-home cowboy cooking -- has become the most recent trend with which to tinker. Sometimes the massaging brings positive results -- Cowboy Ciao does a superb job with Southwestern/Italian; Roaring Fork brings a deliciously upscale Southwestern touch to pioneer staples. Others, like the new Territorial Bar & Grill in Cave Creek, have a little more work to do in the blending department.

Co-owner Bill Danner calls his concept "new Western," combining local flavors with a Continental update to appeal to diners of all sophistication levels. But the result is just a bit too much. While many of the dishes at Territorial are well-prepared, there are simply too many personalities clamoring for attention in this wild Western rodeo.

Territorial has been open for about a year now, under the ownership of Danner, Tom Mills and Matt Lostracco. The trio has a strong background that, when combined, may be the reason for the ruckus behind the menu. Mills' career includes managing the legendary Max's in Glendale (steaks, burgers, barbecue). Lostracco brings experience with Avanti (upscale Italian) and Aunt Chilada's (funky Mexican). Danner comes from a sound and lighting business (the dominant sports club theme?).

Each has brought his favorites to the plate, it appears, resulting in a broad range including chipotle barbecue pork on rustic bread, salmon tacos with ginger chili soy glaze, filet mignon with shrimp, spaghetti with meatballs and duck confit.

It's all served in a building that, with its 1964 birth date, makes it one of the oldest structures in fast-growing Cave Creek. From the outside, Territorial is cowboy -- a wood frame, painted in Arizona's flag colors of red, yellow and blue, off a gravel parking lot. On the inside, it's partly home-style, with a dining room decorated with wooden tables and window frames flanking fabric walls. It's also half sports den, with painted concrete floors, TV sets, Equipale furniture and, beyond the mosaic tiled bar, an "Arizona room" with the state flag painted on the floor.

Territorial's open for lunch only on the weekends, yet it's at this time the concept makes the most sense (and the place is the most fun). This is when diners converge in the bar area, settling back with outrageously good bloody marys and margaritas. When the weather cooperates, it's a kick to grab a seat in the yard (patio is too formal a moniker for this gravel-and-cactus plot dotted with chairs, tables and a large charcoal grill).

The lunch menu is much more restrained, easily categorized as Southwestern/Mexican. A house salad is jazzed with roasted piñon nuts and a choice of prickly pear vinaigrette or jalapeño ranch dressing. Steak tacos take a step up with garlic herb marinade, roasted peppers, Jack cheese and field greens.

Starters are uniformly appealing, particularly the sausage appetizer. The mild chunks are pan fried to a perfectly moist interior, the casing crisp. It's a generous serving, too, piled with roasted red peppers and white onions on a flour tortilla. More red chile and less balsamic in the glaze, and this dish would be stellar.

Quesadillas, that classic Southwestern comfort food, make a good showing here, gorged with gloriously obscene amounts of Monterey Jack, Cheddar and what tastes like Swiss, plus, on request, grilled chicken, shrimp or vegetables. Go for green chiles, which, remarkably, are fresh, not from a can. Cheeseaholics will do well with con queso, too -- a bubbling vat of the dairy stuff dredged with spinach leaves and scooped with tri-color tortilla chips. Dig past the first few runny bites to the molten cheese core within.

Don't miss a single bit of Territorial's out-of-this-world tomato soup, however. The purée of roasted tomato is so thick and spicy it reminds me of enchilada sauce capped with fresh herbs and a drizzle of basil pesto -- weird, but it really works. Hot red pepper comes out with both barrels blazing. Less lusty taste buds will want to stick with the satisfying Sonoran ranch chicken soup, a tame stew of white meat, avocado, squash, roasted pepper and celery topped with tortilla frizzles.

The kitchen is out of verde sauce on the day I order tamales, I'm told, but the chef has substituted pico de gallo -- do I still want the meal? Yes, but one bite shows the sauce would have added necessary depth, moistness and interest to the corn husk-wrapped duo. As it is, the kernel-studded tamales are only fine, dressed with intense tomatillo salsa and scooped with nicely wet black beans.

My dining companion and I have been arguing over who gets the lion's share of the huevos rancheros, because there's just not a lot of substance to the little plate. In a surprise incident of portion control, the kitchen sends out two small corn tortillas topped with simmered egg and red chile sauce. Good enough, but there's just a thimble of whole black beans (soupy refrieds are so much more succulent), and a smattering of fried red potatoes.

Things get more complicated when we return for dinner. Hot, soft bread and olive oil is a much-appreciated fire extinguisher to the torrid tomato soup. A starter of four territorial jerk-spiced shrimp, though, while competently grilled, has no peppery Caribbean taste. Perhaps the jerk has been buried in the blazing-hot red chile sauce ladled around the plate. Corn fritters served along with the dish are too dry and light on the kernel stuffing.

What an Asian beef salad is doing on a Western menu, I don't understand, but it's good -- medium-thick strips of grilled meat dusted with sesame seeds, doused with a tart lemon soy dressing and tumbled next to frisée, spinach, radicchio, roasted peppers and jicama. Territorial needs to lose its salmon carpaccio, though, and quick. This plate has all the subtlety of a hurled brick, teaming much-too-thick-and-rubbery maple-cured fish with garlic toast, overly vinegary jicama slaw and dabs of hefty Dijon cream. Too many offbeat flavors trip all over themselves.

Dinnertime's fancier entrees suffer the same symptoms -- wavering between attempts at authentic Western, mussed with too many frills. The quality of meat in my grilled pork plate is excellent -- tender and tasty. But an achiote marinade comes across as dusty, competing with chimayo chile sauce. Too many clumps of garlic in the mashed potatoes are riotous, the mound crazily spiked with tri-color chips. A side of posole, on the other hand, falls flat, with nothing to focus on other than puffy bits of dried, rejuvenated corn.

Salmon, too, is a good cut, but it's hard to tell under a distracting crust of cornmeal dripped with coriander and lemon cream, all perched on what the menu describes as black bean gumbo (actually chopped jalapeños, peppers and onion). A duck leg is a good specimen, as well, meaty and admirably greaseless, but lacks the fatty tenderness of its promised confit preparation. A sweet hoisin chile glaze is fine, but overpowering as it soaks into sides of grilled vegetables and a delightful wedge of black-peppery potato gratin. Why not serve the sauce on the side? Sometimes simple is better, especially when the fine pork, fish and duck have nothing to hide.

There are no complaints with Territorial's more basic Western offerings. Rib eye brings a hefty chunk of charcoal-grilled beef, touched with just enough fat on its edges for flavor. Sides of spiced onion strings with lightly buttered sautéed peppers and red potatoes make pleasing, no-fuss partners.

A roasted half-chicken is decadence in poultry, inspiring visions of a loving mom in the kitchen. The juicy, golden bird is absolute bliss, skinless and naked, paired with buttery julienne veggies and mashed potatoes in a savory thyme-scented au jus. Perfect.

Nobody's messed with barbecue ribs, either, bringing a lusty plateful of toothsome baby backs brushed in a sugary chipotle tamarind glaze. No fancy antics here, just meat and sides of black beans and creamy coleslaw.

There's not much to say about Territorial's most simple dishes: spaghetti, and a cheeseburger. They are what they are -- everyday, old-fashioned, above-average, all-American grub. As expected, and as respected.

Some things, like classic cuisines, are best unadulterated (Zeguts' Jewish/Projectile Japanese joint, Benny Hana, would never work in the real world, we can only hope). Territorial Bar & Grill has all the basic Western dishes covered quite nicely. Now if it would only leave the other stuff alone.

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