I don't ask Jody how she knows what a pig sounds like. She has already told us she is from Wisconsin and eats cheese on nearly everything. We pay our check and leave. Outside it seems very quiet. We walk around the Arizona Center shops for a while. "Gee, I don't know," I tell my dining accomplice. "I sort of had fun at Hooters. It was relaxing."
"Yeah, I liked it, too," he confesses. "You were really into those crab legs."
"They were fun," I say. "Wanna come back during the playoffs?"
What does the Salt Cellar have in common with Hooters? Not much, except that both restaurants sell seafood. The waiters here are men. They wear blue button-down oxford- cloth shirts with "Salt Cellar" embroidered on the chest. Many are pudgy and look like they enjoy food. All wear long pants. From what I observe, they don't Hula-Hoop on the job.
But many of you already know this. In fact, many of you are probably wondering why I'm reviewing a restaurant that's been around for so long. If you are like one friend of mine, you grew up with the Salt Cellar. In 1976, he came to this restaurant with Mom and Dad for his high school graduation dinner. A few years later, he returned with his college girlfriend on a nice date. Maybe you were there, too, in your open-neck shirt and gold chain, drinking tequila sunrises and frozen daiquiris.
But that was then and this is now. In the Eighties, the Salt Cellar fell on hard times. People stopped coming. New seafood restaurants opened up. Finally, late in 1990, the Salt Cellar closed for a few months to renovate and refresh itself. A dining accomplice and I visit about a month after it reopens, on a Saturday night in March. Mind-boggling as it may seem, this is my first trip to the underground seafood emporium.
I am surprised by what I find.
First of all, the restaurant is cozy but not claustrophobic--unless you sit in the designated nonsmoking room, which is very tiny. It is so small, in fact, that I ask if we can be moved into one of the two larger, smoking sections. No problem, says the hostess. Fortunately, the ventilation is very good. Keep this option in mind if you're a nonsmoker. I like the nautical prints of boats and waves and piers on the walls of our new location, but detest the tired-looking oatmeal plaid upholstery on the booths.
Second, the Salt Cellar is more pricey than I anticipate. Not that I expect seafood to be cheap, but I'm still surprised by the prices listed on the board as we enter: $39 for jumbo Maine lobster, $18.95 for Hawaiian ahi tuna. Maybe it's just been a while since I visited an honest-to-goodness seafood restaurant in Arizona. Maybe this is why I don't go more often. Still, during our meal, I find myself wondering how the young couples obviously here on dates can afford it. Third, the food is good! For years, I've heard of nothing but the mediocrity of the Salt Cellar, but I like what I sample. Crabcakes are moist and meaty and seasoned just right. Steamers are slightly fishy, but come with both hot water and melted butter.
My dining accomplice says he wants to eat "Elvis food" and orders a fried combination plate consisting of oysters, Gulf shrimp and red snapper. Amazingly, even this is good. The breading is tasty without being obtrusive so the seafood flavors come through nicely. The fried butterfly shrimp are firm, the oysters sweet.
I'm saving the best for last, namely the Yakimono Hawaiian Ahi which is weird and wonderful at the same time. Picture this: ahi tuna, seared on the outside with Cajun seasonings, rare in the middle, sliced like London broil and served with soy sauce and a dollop of green Japanese horseradish. Believe it or not, it's fantastic--sushi and blackened fish all in one. The Salt Cellar's sound system is tuned to EZ-listening tunes of yesterday. This seems appropriate, since I feel like I'm on a time trip. A mustachioed man in the corner has his shirt unbuttoned to reveal his (gulp) chest hair. His female companion is drinking a frozen strawberry something. I'd like to visit a seafood restaurant where they play sea chanties or the sound of crashing surf or recordings of whales singing. On second thought, forget that last suggestion. It might make people think too much to enjoy themselves.
Dessert is nothing extraordinary, but I like our choices: a tart key lime pie and a fudgey-rich maple walnut ice cream "black bottom pie."