Cafe Reviews

Pails in Comparison

I'm hoping that they've got my all-time favorite: garlic octopus. I can only pray they serve that other mouthwatering meal, whole fried snapper tumbled over rice, beans and French fries. Surely, shrimp endiablados will be on the menu — no self-respecting restaurant specializing in, and I quote, "seafood selections found South of the Border," would leave off that fiery devil dish. I've been wanting to try this new Scottsdale place, Buckets, ever since its owners used those tantalizing words to announce the restaurant's arrival last October.

Delicacies from the Sea of Cortez, I thought. What a great gift to Old Town Scottsdale, such a contribution to an area that has virtually every type of cuisine but no good San Carlos-region fare. And what a wonderful memorial to the building's former tenant, the much-loved Cajun restaurant Baby Kay's, credited for introducing the Valley to its first taste of les bon temps, with infernally spiced gumbo, jambalaya and crawfish étouffée. Baby Kay's knew that bringing fresh seafood to our desert was a good start; to lock it in a full nelson with hyper heat levels and unfamiliar bayou flavors was a true risk.

But something has happened in the nine months since I first heard the news of this replacement operation. Buckets apparently has rethought its concept, and now I'm studying a menu in vain search for ceviche tostadas, oysters on the half shell, maybe even some crab-stuffed green chiles. My choices this day at lunch are instead things like beer-battered shrimp, chicken tenders, chipotle-glazed chicken wings, chef's salad, Philly cheese steak, a Zoni dog and Dijon chicken. Risk has run away.

Further torturing me: There's a big-screen TV playing behind the bar — practically in my face, considering the tiny span of the intimate restaurant — and it's tuned to the Food Network. 30 Minute Meals is on, and host Rachael Ray is showing us how to make spicy shrimp. Swish, the pristine crustaceans are shaken free of their cleansing water bath. Chop chop, in goes flat-leaf parsley, garlic and lots of crushed red pepper. Hiss, it sizzles merrily together in a skillet while Ray plunks sticks of spaghetti into a pot of boiling water. She marries the shrimp and pasta with an aglio olio of extra virgin olive oil, anchovy, red pepper and garlic. Voilá, a sumptuous supper is served.

I look down at my club sandwich and shrug. So Buckets' owners changed their minds. As its current menu states, Buckets is an American grill with a Southwestern twist. Maybe that explains why this turns out to be one of the best clubs I've had in recent memory, gorged with lots of thin-sliced turkey breast, crisp bacon strips, fresh lettuce and tomato, with mayonnaise between slabs of toasted wheat bread. Say what you will about the simplicity of such a sandwich, but my companion agrees with me: The perfect club needs to be constructed on a large enough scale to be impressive, but not so big that it falls apart when consumed one-handed. Bacon absolutely must be cooked to order: no reheating limp pork. There's no sogginess allowed with the bread, yet at the same time, it must be toasted gently enough so we don't cut the roofs of our mouths with sharp crust edges. Against these standards, Buckets scores well.

As the Food Channel continues its cruel demonstrations — Ray has now moved on to a fine-looking salad, blending tomatoes and onions with parsley, oil, salt and pepper — I joke that it's playing for the benefit of the chef. Perhaps he doesn't know how to make the "South of the Border" dishes, so until he watches enough cooking shows, we'll be eating the Philly cheese steak. But maybe that's not so bad. Again, this turns out to be the kind of stuff they do best. The sandwich is professionally crafted, stocked with deep-flavored, tender, sliced prime rib; gooey smoked provolone; sautéed mushrooms; sweet onions; and peppers on a grilled baguette.

So maybe that's the point of this retooled eatery. If I felt silly after cockily extolling Buckets' supposed south-of-the-border status to my friends, I feel redeemed now. I can, without hesitation, say what Buckets is: a kick-back place to enjoy cocktails on the patio or in the bar, eating appetizers, soups and salads, sandwiches and wraps. I can also say what Buckets is not: a place to part with $12 to $18 for main entrées that are boring, boring, boring.

Of course, my buddy and I had to learn that the hard way, beginning with our first visit. We've got to try the dishes closest to Sonoran-style, I told him on our initial trip. Choose an entrée, not the steak Diane or the rib eye.

Waiting for our meals, we gazed glumly at the fat backside of the empty Galleria, reading the big "For Rent" sign on the condemned brick building across the street (prime real estate, directly next to Bob's TV Repair). I liked the warm breadsticks, dipped in a pleasant enough sun-dried tomato-garlic aioli, despite the fact that they're served in a bucket. (The restaurant is named for its theme: appetizers arriving in shiny tin buckets, condiments in tiny buckets, lighting formed from inverted buckets strung from the ceiling, even buckets serving as sinks and trash bins in the restrooms.) A little later, the shrimp cocktail looked good when it arrived — a half-dozen jumbo prawns overwhelming a parfait glass lined with purple and emerald field greens — but it turned out to be mostly flash, with little flavor.

And though my halibut was satisfying and moist (credit the foil wrapping to seal in the juices), it was entirely mundane, with a mantle of mixed peppers, purple onion and an almost indiscernible chop of jalapeño. The fish was more interesting when I mixed it up with the sides I chose, chunky mashed potatoes and tangy spinach leaves sautéed with bites of tomato and lots of garlic.

My companion's grilled chicken, meanwhile, was paper-thin and dried out, smothered in a lifeless roasted red pepper sauce and unimaginative under julienne carrot and squash. Sides of horridly salty mushroom-studded rice and sweet corn spiked with green pepper and tomato tasted like hotel buffet fare.

It was only when this disappointing first round ended that we began to take in our lesson. After we gave up trying to dig for supposed Sonoran stuff, things got better.

My dinner companion did the unthinkable on our second visit; he joined me at the restaurant when he wasn't hungry. Some lame excuse about dying of heat stroke. But he had to order something, I insisted, even if he wouldn't eat it.

Grudgingly, he went for the peel-and-eat shrimp. Ten minutes after it arrived at the table, it seemed the quarter-kilo portion disappeared all too soon — plucked from one bucket, shells discarded in another bucket, the shrimp dunked in little buckets of cocktail sauce kicked up with 3 Vodka, a hot new spirit distilled from soybeans and select grains. Here was a simple union expertly executed: the midsize shrimp firm and clean (places that leave the waste vein down the back make me scream), the cocktail sauce bright and sharp, the carved lemon alongside juicy and fresh.

Then I let him pick at selections from my bucket, stocked with an ample amount of truly good halibut, the moist and flaky slabs cloaked in a fluffy, crunchy-edged batter and dipped in savory tartar. I only wish I'd known earlier what treasures lay at the bottom of the pile of fish: mounds of incredible, addictive, deep-fried potato coins that smell and taste of pure clean earth. The fish is all the more magical in bites alternated with hot spud.

If I'm feeling generous — and I am, by this visit, charmed by the quality of the casual fare — I can forgive the earlier promise of south-of-the-border seafood by acknowledging that the restaurant does serve some cuisine at dinner that's close to it, even if it hardly resembles anything I've eaten on a sandy Sonoran beach. At dinner, executive chef Nicholas Haddad sends out shrimp especial, the firm shellfish sautéed with mushrooms, onion, peppers, roma tomatoes and white wine-tomato reduction — almost as appealing as that dish I saw on the Food Network. He offers up halibut with a dainty dice of jalapeño. And he gives us fish tacos, that same silky, battered halibut blanketed in soft corn tortillas with crisp, shredded cabbage; tomatoes; and thick, spunky salsa. My choice of a side of spaghetti squash Alfredo may be an odd partner, but I love it, down to each skinny vegetable strand coated in cheesy cream.

Finally, we're done. We should be stuffed, and we are, but the combination of soothing dark lighting, the banter of sports on the TV screen, and the meat-locker chill of air-conditioning has made us forget it's summer. We decide to eat for hibernation.

So Buckets started out Sonoran. Now the only thing truly Sonoran here is playing on the Food Channel. But given the best things on its menu — top-notch dishes of American fare — it looks like the original plan pales in comparison to the finished product.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet