Junior Samples

Note to readers from Cap'n Dave: The honchos here recently got the big idea that I would be the perfect person to do the long Cafe reviews during the transition between the last first-stringer and the next one. I know it looks easy, but it isn't. The long ones are way too much work. So I called a bunch of my friends and, dangling the usual extravagant New Times expense account as bait, asked them to do all the hard work for me. The first one up is Shelly Jamison.

Shelly is the former Channel 10 newswoman who recently worked on that loony roller-derby show. She's a devoted wife and loving mother. She also got completely undressed last year in the presence of a photographer from Playboy. As you will see, she's also much more qualified than I am to do restaurant reviews.

Take it, Shelly:

When Cap'n Dave called me at home a couple of weeks ago and asked if I'd like to star as the guest food critic this week, I hesitated only long enough to ask what New Times was paying. Nothing, you say? (I could tell the paper wanted me bad.) No problem. Rarely do I have an audience this large to heap my views upon.

Anyway, I knew I'd be a natural. After all, I am the first and only offspring of the woman who may be the most powerful restaurant critic in Arizona. That's right, Elin Jeffords is my mommy. She's been reviewing eateries for nearly twelve years--half of that time with New Times, the other half with a larger local Rag. I can truthfully say I've accompanied her on one-third of those ventures. So, if you're wondering what experience a former newscaster-turned-Playboy-model-turned-Crash-TV-series-hostess has, the answer is, more than you can shake a ladle at.

For my reviews, I chose two establishments that seem to be child-friendly. That, of course, is because I have a friendly child. Peanut, as I will refer to him here, is nineteen months of sheer food-spewing sweetness. Most nights we keep him to ourselves at home, but every now and then it's refreshing to leave the mess for someone else to clean up. We're always on the lookout for places where youth can be served. To start, I should probably admit that I've always hated "fun" concepts. Too much merriment makes me cranky. I mean, if it ain't happening on its own, why force it? However, "fun" food sometimes makes sense, like for those uncomfortable occasions when you don't know your dinner companions very well. Or when you have a Tater Tot to keep entertained.

Bobby McGee's Conglomeration, one of the two restaurants I tried for this volunteer assignment, has long had a "fun" reputation. With a child under one arm and a husband at the other, I decided to give it a whirl. There are three Bobby McGee's in the Valley. The Scottsdale location is a freestanding building that reminds me of a storybook castle on steroids. Inside, it's clean and festive. We arrived at about 5:30 p.m., and the joint was almost empty. I was immediately put off when the hostess duo asked us to have a seat for "a few minutes" while they found us a table. As the seating team studied what was obviously an empty chart, my arms grew heavy with the weight of my boy. Finally we were led to a deep, dark, comfortable booth. Peanut was seated in a spotlessly clean highchair. After a year and a half of schlepping the kid to restaurants, I've seen highchairs so encrusted with dried goo of meals past they were unrecognizable as furniture. I've found that a clean highchair is almost always indicative of an establishment's overall attitude toward cleanliness--and toward service in general.

Despite the needless initial confusion at the hostess station, things were looking up. A large, frothy margarita didn't hurt, either. As soon as you enter the dining area of Bobby McGee's, the fun begins. Most of the staff are wearing costumes. Our waiter was dressed as a doctor, and the cocktail waitress's character was Lady Luck--complete with a garter on the arm, an eyeshade (with a hand of cards attached), the whole shot.

In order to spread the fun around, the staffers aren't territorial about their stations, so several different characters stopped by during the meal to share a joke. Bobby McGee's menu is new and offers something for everyone-- chicken, pasta, shellfish and scads of beef dishes. We started with a Party Platter ($7.95), which came with zucchini, cheese sticks, potato skins and hot wings. The zucchini and cheese were fried in a light, crumb-flecked jacket, the skins were crisp and flavorful and the wings were coated with slick, Cajun-style sauce. Peanut made busy with his wing for a full half-hour, and he chewed it to practically a nubbin. After dusting off the platter, we sashayed on over to the massive salad bar, a clean, inviting, picture-perfect example of why this concept has remained a crowd-pleaser for so long. Mounds of fresh goodies, including toothsome boiled shrimp, were piled up, waiting for customers. I found the house dressing to be on the wimpy side, but the others were uniformly good.

Be warned, however, that the salad bar is $1.95 extra when ordered with some of the entrees. This is a small but important point our doctor-waiter failed to mention, and we didn't catch it buried in the menu's fine print. The main course arrived just in time to divert Peanut's rapidly wandering attention. By this time, the dining room had begun to fill with lots of family types like us, groaning at the half-baked jokes of the colorful staff.

The menu item called "The Lottery" is a clever offering that allows diners to combine two, three or four entrees out of a possible dozen main dishes. Portions of our three lottery picks-- fried shrimp, scallops Alfredo and fried clams--were generous, and each item passed individual taste-tests around the table. Other lottery possibilities include teriyaki London broil, lasagna and barbecued chicken. The "Three for the Money" option costs $15.95, and even at that price we thought it was a bargain.

Our other entree orders were a slab of baby-back ribs ($13.95), a plateful of beef bones ($9.95) and a serving of king crab legs ($20.95). Both of our bone-based selections came as advertised on the menu--meaty, tender, lean and smoky, and Peanut sank his teeth into the pork ribs with vigor.

The crab legs were obviously frozen but had been treated with respect in the kitchen and tasted fine. French fries and baked potato (served with a too-small portion of sour cream) accompanied the meals, and both were spudly-good.

We topped off this feast with the "Mud Slide" dessert, which has to be the biggest serving of chocolate-based dessert decadence I have ever seen. It's gargantuan. We loved it. One order is more than enough for four or five adults. Our bill (tip not included) came in at just under a C-note. Considering the size of our order, I think that's reasonable. Our second child-friendly dining experience took place at Sardella's Pizza and Wings, Inc. It's a clean, colorful eatery tucked comfortably in an established strip-center on the far-north side of town. We were greeted at the door by a warm, smiling gentleman, who handed us menus and showed us to a table.

The menu is simple, and prices are competitive. Offerings include pizza, chicken wings, fried zucchini and mushrooms, curly-Q potatoes and a dinner salad. We ordered one of almost everything and still managed to spend only about $20. The salad comes in a large, sealed plastic container. There are enough greens inside for two people, but the package's contents aren't very interesting--just mounds of iceberg lettuce topped with a scanty selection of sprouts, tomato slivers and croutons.

The dressings are prepackaged and also not especially tantalizing. We pushed the salad aside after a few lifeless bites. Oldies music was playing in the background, so we tapped our toes to the tunes while we waited for the rest of our order.

In just a few minutes our appetizers were on the table. My husband is a bona fide fried-zucchini fan, and he pronounced this batch less than great because of too much batter and not enough flavor. The curly-Qs were tasty but not hot enough. They also clumped together awkwardly as we tried to pull them apart. Our chicken-wing order had included mild (for husband and son) and spicy (for me), and these little babies were great--tender, and dripping hot sauce and vinegar. Best of all, we didn't suffer the dreaded Ka-Winga-Minga two hours later. That's the awful burning, urpy sensation that creeps up your esophagus after a yucky batch of wings.

The pizza was the high point of the visit. We ordered a combo with pepperoni, mushrooms and green peppers. The crust was crisp, the sauce zesty and, despite the presence of canned mushrooms, we gobbled the pie down happily. Peanut downed a couple of crust pieces in no time. Delivery is available within a small area, and a 10 percent in-store discount is offered during lunch hour for people carrying business cards. I would go back to Sardella's for the pizza and wings, but the rest of the menu didn't hold much interest for me. The place was doing a steady business when we were in, and I hope that continues. In my neighborhood, there'll always be room for a simple, family pizza place. The fine chicken wings are a bonus.

So . . . at this point you might be wondering: How much did Mommy help me with this? The answer is, not at all. I'm just as acerbic and talented--and humble--as she is. Bobby McGee's Conglomeration, 7000 East Shea, Scottsdale, 998-5591. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday. Sardella's Pizza and Wings, Inc., 18631 North 19th Avenue, Suite 144, Phoenix, 492-0550. Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday; noon to 10 p.m., Sunday.

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