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Old-School Eats

I have to start wondering about the food when all people have to say about a restaurant is how neat it is. "Oh, it's so Arizona!" "That place is really cool in an old-school way." "You gotta check out the bar." That's fine and all, but what about your dinner?...
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I have to start wondering about the food when all people have to say about a restaurant is how neat it is.

"Oh, it's so Arizona!"

"That place is really cool in an old-school way."

"You gotta check out the bar."

That's fine and all, but what about your dinner? Was it any good? Great atmosphere can seduce me as much as anyone, but the food has to be worth it, too. (It's sort of the flip side of what I wrote about the much-hyped Mary Elaine's last week.)

Such was the reason for my curiosity about El Chorro Lodge in Paradise Valley. Originally built as a girls' school, the property started attracting Hollywood luminaries like Clark Gable and Milton Berle after it became a restaurant in 1937. Celebrity magic can smolder for decades, so on one hand, I had to wonder if this Valley institution was overrated after all these years. Then again, maybe it was time-honored for a reason. After all, owner Joe Miller started off as a bartender there in 1952, so if anything, I expected a finely tuned operation.

I tried El Chorro Lodge on a few occasions, but it really only took one visit for me to figure the place out. I spotted a couple of white-haired old men enjoying their meal on the patio, where white umbrellas and mature orange trees loom above clusters of white wicker tables and chairs. (At night, the spot glows with white lights wrapped around the tree trunks, and mesquite logs burn in the nearby fireplace.) It was a random weekday afternoon, and yet they were dressed to the nines, with tweed jackets and spiffy leather shoes. One guy was even wearing a silk ascot.

This was their kind of place. I could see it on their faces as they basked in the sun, laughing about who-knows-what as they took in views of the desert landscape and mountains. It made me miss my grandparents, and made me consider the things they appreciate: dressed-up takes on meat and potatoes, a good blue cheese salad dressing, a stiff Tanqueray and tonic. "They would love it here," I thought to myself, making a mental note to take Grandma and Pop Pop to El Chorro if I can ever get the snowbirds to visit Arizona instead of making their annual migration to Florida.

The service was friendly, but not overbearing. I found it odd that our hostess seemed confused about where to put us when our table wasn't ready, even though we had a dinner reservation (hadn't this issue come up before in the last 70 or so years?). For an awkward minute or two, we were standing in a high-traffic area, dodging waiters and departing guests. All was resolved, though, when we got a temporary table and cocktails. It was a seamless transition from there to dinner — no fuss about transferring the tab. For the rest of the night, one server handled our meals while another tended to our drinks.

Food at El Chorro was straightforward, presented in almost extravagant portions. That's not to say there wasn't room for improvement. My friend's sautéed salmon was dry. Garlic mashed potatoes had no noticeable garlic, nor were they very creamy. Sides of mixed vegetables and wild rice were well-prepared but lackluster, mere color and starch to go along with plates of protein. Considering the steep prices, the kitchen could've tried harder.

Otherwise, I enjoyed what I ate. El Chorro makes a great first impression with a gratis breadbasket of fresh rolls and warm sticky buns to start off every meal. Those buns have a cult following, and I understand why — it was really hard to hold back after only a couple bites of the sweet, gooey dough. Good thing there wasn't much lag time between courses or I would've filled up on them.

The Shrimp Louie and the Miller's Melange were substantial, entree-size salads, both piled with chunks of Gulf shrimp. The former was a bowl of crisp greens, tomatoes, and wedges of lemon, with a side of Thousand Island-style Louie dressing, a house specialty. The Melange, a mix of turkey chunks, crunchy jicama slices, artichoke hearts, and lettuce, tasted great with pungent Roquefort dressing.

Two charred, double-size lamb chops arrived sizzling hot out of a 1,600-degree mesquite broiler, which El Chorro also uses for its prime aged beef. The chops came with mint jelly, but they were juicy and flavorful on their own. Chicken-fried steak was two large pieces of golden, lightly batter-fried meat, topped with creamy pan gravy. And the beef stroganoff was especially tasty, a soft heap of egg noodles slathered in rich, tangy cream sauce. Tender slices of filet mignon made it extra buttery.

For dessert, I sampled the chocolate ice box cake, a smooth, chilled slice of Belgian chocolate mousse with walnuts, a graham cracker crust, and a dollop of whipped cream — not bad, but I preferred the caramel custard flan, with its pudding-like texture and faint scent of rum.

Brunch wasn't served buffet-style at El Chorro, but it was a decent selection of stick-to-your-ribs dishes — including steak and eggs, chipped beef, and corned beef hash. As if I had any doubt that this is an old-fashioned restaurant, there were four varieties of eggs Benedict, too. I tried the salmon lox Benedict, which combined thick, smoky pieces of salmon, perfectly poached eggs, and toasted pieces of English muffin, all blanketed in warm Hollandaise sauce. The "one of a kind" French toast, made with thick slices of homemade cinnamon raisin bread, was also delicious, but after those sticky buns, I felt like I was overdoing it. Thankfully, it came with hash browns and a couple of meaty sausages to give my sugar-shocked palate a break.

Now I know why so many people talk about the charming atmosphere at El Chorro. It's not a foodie destination, but it's beloved nonetheless. A little overrated? Maybe, but there really are some delicious things on the menu. It's a place people visit for a piece of history, to scope out the scene, to order old-fashioned entrees like chicken livers or roast duckling with orange sauce. To the older generation, saltines and a relish tray never went out of style. To younger folks, they're refreshingly retro-chic. El Chorro's enduring popularity can be chalked up to a little bit of both.

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