Cafe Reviews

Harry's Taco

Pink Taco is to Mexican grub what the House of Blues is to soul food, or P.F. Chang's is to Chinese. Each of these spots doles out eats for yupper middle-class, gringo palates. So if you're expecting either a gourmet meal or an authentic ethnic dining experience when you go to one, then you're nuttier than Mr. Tom "Where's Baby Suri" Cruise. Marketing-wise, you might consider such high-concept establishments akin to putting a drainage ditch behind a condo complex and calling it, ahem, "The Waterfront."

If you approach Scottsdale's Pink Taco restaurant in this vein, then you won't be disappointed. The food is at least better than P.F. Chang's, and near the level of a House of Blues. It's theme eatery fare, for sure, but for what it is, it's slightly above average most of the time. And it does deliver on its sexy, Vegasy image, with the sort of cheesy/cool interior that reels in both the tourists and shiny-shirt hipsters.

Folks here seem more concerned with purchasing memorabilia than whether or not their carne asada blows. What draws them is the naughtiness of the name, the fact that they're supping at a place christened for a gal's private parts. And in the same way that Hooters is a place families go to put on the feedbag these days, so too will Pink Taco soon become so benign that you won't give it a second thought. It's nearly there as is, even if Scottsdale's Mayor Mary Manross disagrees. In actuality, Manross' verbal disapproval of the taco parlor's title has resulted in a ton of local and national publicity for the restaurant. Pink Taco CEO Harry Morton and his moneybags pop, Hard Rock Casino CEO Peter Morton, couldn't have planned it any better.

This is the second Pink Taco, the first being in Las Vegas, at Morton père's casino. Playboy Harry plans to spin PT into a national chain, not unlike the one his grandpappy started years back, a little empire called Morton's Steakhouse. Scottsdale's PT is to be the chain's flagship. Recently Big Daddy Morton sold the casino for $770 million to the Morgans Hotel Group, so maybe Harry needs something to keep him occupied when he's not partying with the likes of Mischa Barton, Christina Milian or Paris Hilton. (Uh, Harry, if you ever need a wingman . . .)

Gossip aside, I'd say Harry has a winner on his hands. The restaurant's decor ranges from crosses, statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Day of the Dead skeletons to tricked-out bicycles, chandeliers crafted from molded elk antlers, and murals featuring the greatest of all masked Mexican wrestlers, El Santo. Classic and contemporary rock plays loudly on the stereo: The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Pearl Jam, and so on. Though there's a big patio area ringed by misters, the inside is not as commodious as you might expect. No matter where you sit, you get the feel that you're part of the bar action. When the place is full, there's a definite energy. Like Vegas, minus the gambling.

With this sort of setup, you'd expect the service to bite rancid dog biscuits. And when I entered one night, I spied some pals leaving from the bar area because they stated the service was too slow. But I was served in a timely manner, and the staff seemed courteous, if extremely casual in the way they slide the food in front of you. As for the eats, I wouldn't choose Pink Taco over Rosita's Place on McDowell, or Barrio Café, or even Richardson's, but there were some bright spots. The thick tortilla chips, for instance, were obviously made in-house, and the trio of salsas was fairly lip-smacking. I liked the tangy salsa verde best, but the brown chipotle and the reddish achiote also had a kick to them.

I wasn't overly impressed with my margarita, which tasted a bit weak. Could've done with some stiffening, like, say, Phil Gordon's backbone. I generally approved of the appetizers I sampled. The beer-battered shrimp? Well, it's hard to go wrong with fried crustaceans, but I've seen it done before, and these are better than I've had elsewhere of late. You get a good pile of them, with a chipotle sour cream dip, but I preferred using the salsa verde mentioned above.

If I'd been eating alone, I could have gotten full on the appetizer platter, five portions of two items each, all nicely plated on a trimmed banana leaf. The carne asada skewers had an appealing smokiness to them, but they were a little on the chewy side. The lightly barbecued satay-like chicken was way too dry, however, and I ended up not finishing it. The corn tamales were sweet enough to double as dessert, but still moist and palatable. I found the quesadillas inoffensive, and the taquitos? An exceptional item, crisp little tortilla rolls stuffed with mashed potatoes and topped with sour cream and anejo cheese. Scrumptious stuff.

Entrees were more hit or miss. I found my fish tacos of fried mahi-mahi chunks on soft corn tortillas anemic in the extreme. Don't bogart that gill-bearer, bub. A little more fish on the plate won't kill you. The taste of the carne asada tacos matched the skewers, but they needed something other than just a sprinkling of onion bits. If you were in a real taco place, you'd get an assortment of condiments to add, and this is what's needed here. The yellow rice and refried beans: adequate in flavor, but portion size in both cases was too small.

The chicken and cheese enchiladas were pretty bland, and came at first with only a drizzling of sour cream, until we pointed out to the waitress that the menu promised either a tomatillo or roasted tomato sauce. The latter was brought, but the mediocrity of the plate was not altered much. The signature pink tacos were fairly scarfalicious: grilled chicken with beans, avocado, salsa and pickled reddish onions on top — the "pink" part. If only everything on the bill had been this satisfying. The chile relleno, for instance, was mucked up by all these goopy black beans inside the crust, and the flavorlessness of the chile itself.

I mostly approved of all the desserts I tried, from the fried ice cream to the tres leches cake served in a martini glass. Only out-and-out flop for me was the flan, which was all egginess, and very little caramel. Generally, the Pink Taco tastes like success. Even if it is a little Harry.