Cafe Reviews

Going, Going, Gonzo

Whether I feel sort of silly sitting in what's supposed to be a nice, grown-up restaurant eating a platter of mini corn dogs is not really the point. The crispy fried weenies are good enough, ridiculously cute at one and a half inches long, and dipped in ketchup, honey mustard or ranch dressing. They're one of the most popular dishes at the new Gonzo's All American Grill, my waitress tells me.

It's also really neither here nor there what my personal feelings are about being surrounded by a clientele largely populated by screaming infants and hyper elementary school kids. Those small folk have to be let out of their cages sometime, I suppose. And I'm not here to judge fashion, so who really cares if many of the guests around me are decked in sloppy shorts, tee shirts and sandals, even if they are sitting in expensive leather booths and using cloth napkins?

It doesn't bother me too much that the menu at Gonzo's is so blah, so boring, that I have to look at my detailed receipt a few days later to remind myself exactly what it was that I ate. There's no harm in a place that sends out production-line bacon Cheddar burgers, smoked turkey sandwiches, barbecued chicken pizzas, and Cobb salads, if that's what people want to eat. I'm even okay that dinner itself is served at warp speed, with my party of four being spun out -- after two appetizers, an entree and beer each and one shared dessert -- in less than an hour. Sometimes I, too, just want to get fed, and coast with a plate of okay if not exciting smoked chicken and penne with pancetta, peas, oregano, tomatoes and cream. Filling the belly, as it were.

What has me scratching my head is this: In order to put myself in such a place for a meal, I drove an hour in bumper-to-bumper Loop 101 traffic. I had to park at a nearby bus pickup lot, because Gonzo's lot was packed to capacity. I had to endure an excruciating 70-minute wait for a table (the restaurant takes reservations only for parties of eight or more), until I was summoned by one of those tacky buzzing-blinking beepers. And at the end, my tab came to (nervous readers should be sitting down for this) $115, not including tax or tip.

Suffice it to say, I am not impressed by Gonzo's All American Grill. Because for all the swanky leather booths shaped like baseball gloves, the "waterfall" wall, the two dozen high-definition plasma TVs tuned to sports, Gonzo's is just another way too loud, completely predictable sports bar charging too much for a Philly cheese steak ($10, for a dull sliced beef sub with grilled onions, red peppers and provolone).

Yet apparently, a whole bunch of other people think Gonzo's is the greatest. Every time I visit -- dinner, lunch, happy hour -- the tables are full, the lobby is brimming, and would-be diners are spilling out onto the sidewalk that fronts the otherwise quiet stretch of Gilbert's historic corridor.

The draw, of course, isn't the food, but Gonzo. As in Diamondbacks left fielder Luis Gonzalez. He's a partner in the operation, sort of. The place is owned by the Higgenbotham family, owners of the Sun Devil Auto Inc. repair chain (they also owned Mahogany Run, the failed upscale steak house in the space now occupied by Gonzo's). Gonzalez has simply donated his name and some memorabilia to the restaurant; in interviews I've read about the place's opening, he's acknowledged that he doesn't know much about the menu, or gourmet food in general. At least he's more honest than a lot of the other sports celebrities who lend their name to restaurants -- the staff tells me he actually hangs out at "his" Grill on days he's not playing ball. He happily signs autographs, they assure me.

And to Gonzalez's credit, he doesn't seem to be pretending to care that much. I did enjoy the frankness of his answer to a Sports Illustrated Q&A interview in mid-April. "S.I.: You opened Gonzo's All American Grill in Gilbert. Do you consider (fellow Phoenix-area restaurateurs) Alice Cooper and Dan Majerle the competition? Gonzalez: No, because I'm directly on the other side of town."

It hasn't hurt that the restaurant has been lauded by other Valley media almost to ad nauseam since it was announced that it would be opening, originally last October, finally in May. Local radio, TV, newspaper and magazine reporters have been falling over each other to gush about this exciting venue from Gonzalez, the golden boy of the 2001 World Series, and proud bearer of a three-year, $30 million contract. There's got to be some star quality in a guy who can get people to spend $10,000 for a wad of his used-up, spit-out chewing gum (remember last April, when that Wisconsin man coughed up the loot for a stolen bit of Gonzalez's coughed out Bazooka?).

But I'm still not impressed. Gonzalez may be joking with his theory that being isolated from other restaurants is enough of a draw for his place, but I wonder how long even the staunchest fans will be willing to fork over $24 for an ordinary, eight-ounce grilled filet mignon (potato and vegetable included, salad $2 extra). Besides, the stretch of Gilbert Road that Gonzo's occupies has many worthier dining choices in my book: Café ah Pwah, Joe's Real Barbecue, Lulu's Taco Shop, Mint Thai Cafe, The Farmhouse, Gecko Grill and Flancer's Cafe.

I know my dining companions -- several of them avid Diamondbacks fans -- quickly grow impatient with the mind-numbing noise level, and the service mistakes that occur again and again. Over several visits, our servers forget drink orders. They bring the wrong food to the table. I ask for steak and Cheddar dip, the gooey blend spiked with spinach and pico de gallo, and all I get is a basket of tri-color tortilla chips (oops, says the waitress, bringing the dip 10 minutes later). A $4 glass of wine is rung up at $27, and other receipts come with duplicate charges (no, I really didn't eat two 16-ounce rib eyes all by my lonesome).

One companion sums up the Gonzo's experience succinctly. I ask her what she thinks of her Chilean sea bass, and she shrugs. "Well. It's . . . well, I like anything I don't have to cook." Sure, the fish is fine, seared and ladled with timid pesto cream sauce, but it's as ordinary as another fish dish, pan-seared Atlantic salmon atop a sleepy grilled Roma tomato sauce. Prime rib like this, I could get anywhere -- supposedly, it's rubbed with garlic herb pesto, but my group doesn't taste any flavoring. Chicken, too, is pure banquet-food quality, stuffed with green chiles, tomato, chorizo and Monterey Jack with a drizzle of bland chipotle sauce.

The rest of Gonzo's menu is a don't-bother proposition. The only thing keeping me awake through thick cut beer-battered onion rings and breaded chicken strips is the screeching of a pipsqueak nearby (she's upset that her French fries are seasoned with sour cream and chives instead of Ore-Ida naked). I feel like screeching, too, unwilling to believe I've waited more than an hour to get a table, only to be presented with typical chicken nachos, or an everyday chicken quesadilla. The most interesting thing here is Thai spring rolls, nicely crispy won ton tubes stocked with grilled shrimp, shredded cabbage, cilantro, onion, tomato and lime alongside a cautious pineapple hoisin vinaigrette. But even that doesn't hold my interest for the time it takes for my server to forget to bring me water, forks or a dessert menu (the listing is printed on a table-tent bar thingy, with expected sweets like butter cake, bread pudding and brownie sundae).

I sure don't need the ugly sight of twin bratwursts lurking in my brain, gray meat grilled with sauerkraut, onions and German mustard plus the obligatory dump truck load of chips or fries. And I don't need to pay $9 for only average fish tacos, a trio of warm corn tortillas with seared sea bass, cilantro, cabbage slaw, queso fresco, lime and rice.

What's truly amazing about Gonzo's is that this is a restaurant that Gilbert officials say they're hoping will position its town as a dining destination. They're counting on the All American Grill to draw people from all across the Valley. I can see where it's easy to be optimistic, given the grand opening crowds currently flooding the place. Yet with food this mediocre, I'm betting that the honeymoon period will be as short as those teeny, tiny, deep-fried mini corn dogs.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet