Buck &Rider in Arcadia Attracts A Crowd, But Much of The Offerings Fall Short

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If you spend any time traversing the well-groomed streets of Arcadia, you know Buck &Rider. The upscale seafood-centric restaurant lights up a corner of 44th Street and Camelback Road with its electric-blue marquee sign, radiating the sort of magnetic presence of a place that is frequented nightly, and often, by a steady flow of diners.

It would not be a controversial statement to say that Buck &Rider is yet another hit concept from LGO Hospitality, the local restaurant group behind beloved Arcadia haunts like LGO Grocery & Pizzeria, Chelsea’s Kitchen, and Ingo’s Tasty Food. This is arguably the group’s most ambitious restaurant to date, a built-from-the-ground-up concept that, when it opened last fall, promised to deliver a top-notch supply of fresh seafood, shellfish in particular, to metro Phoenix.

On this front, the restaurant delivers marvelously. This is the place to go for the luxury of an afternoon spent crowded around an aluminum platter of chilled oysters — oysters are regularly flown in from waters as far-flung as New Zealand, and the selection changes daily. They are nicely shucked to order, served with all the sauces and accoutrements you could hope for, and the fresh bivalves ripple with all the sweetness and brininess of the South Pacific, or wherever they might have been recently netted.

To sit at Abby’s Oyster Bar, then — the handsome, well-stocked raw bar situated inside the Buck &Rider dining room — with a tray of fresh oysters on ice and a glass of white wine at your side, is to feel something like royalty, Phoenix-style. It’s somewhat akin to the feeling of plucking a fat, juicy navel orange from a citrus tree in December, or strolling across the fine emerald gloss of a newly manicured golf course in the middle of the desert. It’s an unnatural abundance, but one that has proven too hard for us to resist.
So, while the simple yet highly prized pleasure of feasting on fresh oysters, Maine lobster, jumbo Gulf shrimp, and Alaskan king crab, among others, is in steady supply at Abby’s Oyster Bar, that is but a sliver of the Buck &Rider experience. Most of what you’ll find on the Buck &Rider menu is an array of surf-and-turf dishes. And only a few of these dishes, unfortunately, offer the same kind of thrills you might find at the raw bar.

Still, there is a different kind of joy to experience at Buck &Rider, which is the small but palpable thrill of just being in the thick of it all. From the outside, if you didn’t know any better, you might confuse the restaurant’s modern, angular design — modeled after a real-life house located in a “swanky” Australian beach town, according to the Buck &Rider website — for a sleeker, hipper version of your neighborhood Outback Steakhouse. Inside, though, Buck &Rider paints the sort of lively, high-toned impression that most chain places can’t match.

There’s the dining room, a labyrinth of tufted leather booths, bright modern pop art juxtaposed against 19th-century William Morris wallpaper, glossy tropical plants in massive pots and wintery faux trees in burlap sacks, and a glittering chandelier suspended over a tall, stone fireplace, which looks as if it might belong in the lobby of an upscale European winter lodge. The total effect is eclectic, if somewhat disjointed. But most of all, it’s deeply polished and unabashedly stylish.
Throw in a small army of youthful servers in crisp white shirts and suspenders, who zip around the somewhat cavernous dining room while balancing chilled oyster platters and bottles of wine, and you’ve got yourself a lively scene. The room can get loud and chaotic at peak dinner hours, but rather than detract from the experience, the near-constant buzz in the air only seems to reinforce the idea that you are in the right place.

Of course, you cannot feed on ambiance and cocktails alone, so there’s the menu, which is divided into neat sections: sushi, a small plate “Provisions” menu, seafood salads, and a “Sea & Pasture” menu of entrées.

Although Asian-inspired sauces and classic Asian ingredients are a running theme on the Buck &Rider menu, the presence of sushi on the lineup feels like something of an afterthought, an addendum aimed to please sushi-obsessed diners who will tend to order it no matter what else is on the menu.

You’ll find most of the standard rolls, including a California roll, fine but a bit gummy and bland. More elaborate rolls are better, including a crunchy shrimp roll jammed with crunchy bits of roasted almonds and jazzed up with Serrano chiles. It should appease more discerning sushi lovers, but if your aim is to dine on very serious sushi, Buck &Rider would probably not be your go-to first choice.
More likely, you’ll find yourself lingering over the lengthy provisions menu, which is where you’ll find the deviled crab dip, described as the house signature dip. It’s fine, but leans toward being bland and bready. A dish of crispy Brussels sprouts, meanwhile, yields a big bowl full of the sliced and deeply blackened veggies, which have been tossed in a nice, slightly sweet apple gastrique. But, on a recent visit, some of the Brussels sprouts were also quite charred and bitter, and not even a tiny ramekin of somewhat pasty goat cheese dipping sauce on the side could blunt the lingering bitterness.

Crisply calamari, a staple at any seafood parlor, is fine but a little too bready and dull, and served with an extra-vinegary Thai dipping sauce that could strip the enamel right off your teeth if you let it. “Spicy #1” tuna tostadas are elaborate and very fresh — piled high with a tuna escabeche, slivers of avocado, and jalapeño — but the resounding effect again is that of vinegar singeing your palate.

Probably the highlight of the provisions menu is the lobster roll — called “Nik Niks” here — which is slightly crisp and polished with so much butter, you can practically catch your reflection in its luster. The hunks of well-cooked lobster melt on contact, as they should, until they are nothing more than a silken sheen on your tongue.

Crispy hash browns “pour deux” are another highlight. The small, cast-iron dish of shredded spuds is beautifully seasoned and cooked, the perfectly crispy potatoes topped with a healthy dollop of sour cream and chives. It’s delicious, if a little incongruous with the rest of the menu.
There are some excellent entrees, including an extra-creamy, salty Radio Milano pasta troife dish. The twisty pasta spirals, dripping in a rich almond pesto sauce, are spiked with juicy nubs of homemade sausage and chunks of Ojai shrimp that seem to erupt with more flavor the longer you chew. It’s an outstanding dish.

You may derive a similar note of pleasure from a plate of blue crab cakes — a rarefied treat at $32 for two smallish cakes — delicately spongy and very moist on the inside, and gorgeously browned on the outside. Pan-seared scallops, although not quite as memorable, are still very good, served on a bed of creamy polenta that’s been deepened with earthy slivers of maitake mushrooms.

Classic entrees like a steak-and-lobster surf and turf are excellent if unexciting, and a plate of grilled Campbell River salmon, glazed in a light miso sauce, is nicely cooked, though it may barely register in your memory.

And there’s clams spago, a classic white wine pasta-and-clams offering whose herb-scented gremolata is bright and lively, but with an acidity that lingers on your tongue longer than it probably should. Even with all those fresh flavors mingling and coalescing your plate, the dish is noticeably unbalanced. It doesn’t quite live up to everything you might hope. You could say the same thing about Buck &Rider.

Buck &Rider
4225 East Camelback Road

Hours: Sundays 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Mondays through Thursdays 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fridays 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturdays 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Deviled crab dip $12
Lobster roll $18
Radio Milano pasta troife $23
Grilled Campbell River salmon $28

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