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Cartwright's: Happy Hour Report Card

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The Spot: Cartwright's Sonoran Ranch House, 6710 E. Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek, 480-488-8031, www.cartwrightssonoranranchhouse.com.

See also: - Timo: Happy Hour Report Card - Citizen Public House: Happy Hour Report Card

The Hours: Happy Hour is offered from 4:30 to 6:30 pm every day.

The Interior: Beamed ceilings and stucco walls combine with antiques and Western artifacts to give the white tablecloth dining room the warmth and rusticity of an old ranch house. Happy hour is held in the Mesquite Bar that sits near the entrance, which is not a lounge but rather a massive wooden bar and back bar with twelve heavy, wrought iron-backed and upholstered bar stools. Customers appear to be Cave Creek regulars, (mostly older folks) who know the menu, the bartender and the drill. Both TVs are tuned to football highlights. Yawn. No baseball? In October?

The Food: Happy hour selections draw from the regular appetizer menu, featuring three dishes at $5 each and Blue Point oysters (a minimum order of six required), priced at a buck apiece. Because I've come with a friend and we've ordered all four selections, the kitchen has split out two dishes and served them on the same plate.

One side features chunks of Cheyenne Indian buffalo and chipotle sausage -- juicy and a little spicy -- served over mustard spätzle and guajillo-spiced cabbage. It's a mini supper (vaguely German, thanks to the sausage/spätzle combo) and the best of the lot by a country mile ($5).

Six pie-shaped corn chips (three per plate), generously topped with a mixture of braised pulled pork and melted Mexican white cheese, don't seem like nachos at all -- primarily because they're served almost cold with no sense of bubbly cheese or other toppings, which is pretty much what nachos are all about. The meat's tasty, but the dish just isn't interesting or remotely satisfying despite a fancy-sounding accompaniment of mango jicama salsa. I'd be sorely disappointed if I'd had to pay full freight for this one ($5).

Shrimp cocktail -- two jumbo shrimp (firm but not as flavorful or pristine as they could be) -- come served over a sprinkle of coarsely cut, raw red cabbage with the worst cocktail sauce I've ever had in my life. It's called "Sonoran," and I don't know what's in it, but it's thick, pasty and perfectly dreadful. Accompanying lemon and lime wedges would be just right with good old unadulterated Heinz Cocktail Sauce. But no. Somebody in the kitchen feels the need to be creative, and this is the unhappy result (2 shrimp for $5).

But surely the most disappointing part of this happy hour are the shucked Blue Points, which, I'm told, everyone in Cave Creek raves about. On this day, the oyster meat is thin and watery instead of plump and firm. They're more like runny smears of oyster than proper oysters -- not worth 50 cents, much less a dollar. Of course, I realize their quality could be beyond Cartwright's control. If only there were decent cocktail sauce to go with the nose-tingling horseradish I might feel a bit better about the situation.

The Drink: Cartwright's doesn't offer much in the way of beverage bargains either: a dollar off draft beers (the handle selection, which includes Bud Light, is pretty grim), $8 well martinis, $5 well cocktails and $5 wines by the glass, limited to Chardonnay and Merlot in the same brand.

The Conclusion: So let's see: mostly mediocre food, mediocre drink and an ambiance that barely has a pulse. Why on earth do Cave Creekers think this is a great happy hour? Maybe they seldom leave the city limits and just don't know any better. Only thing I can figure.

Grade: C-


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