Cafe Reviews

Pink Slip

For all I've heard about Pink Taco in the year since it opened, there hasn't been a peep about the food.

Numerous feats of PR brilliance have landed the restaurant in the national media spotlight — Pink Taco CEO Harry Morton's famous spat with Scottsdale Mayor Mary Manross over the risqué name; splashy segments on SNL and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; pink underwear promotions with Sheriff Joe Arpaio; and a dashed $30 million deal to name the Arizona Cardinals' home field Pink Taco Stadium.

But all it's amounted to is vagina slang on the, uh, lips of everyone in town, and (including that one) too many stupid jokes. I'm always asking people where they've eaten lately — good and bad places alike — and nobody ever mentions Pink Taco.

I'd never bothered to go there, not only because my predecessor reviewed it but also because I live and work close to 16th Street, the best stretch of Mexican restaurants in the Valley. From Tradiciones to Barrio Cafe, with all those great little taco and torta shops in between, why would I venture to the Scottsdale Waterfront — to the mall, really, and a chain with locations in Vegas and, soon, Los Angeles — for Mexican?

Bottom line, I wouldn't. But I went anyway after getting word that Pink Taco hired executive chef Nathan Slattery to jazz up the menu. Slattery previously worked for the Atlanta outpost of New York's Rosa Mexicano, hailed by national food magazines for its contemporary Mexican cuisine. He's also a graduate of the Scottsdale Culinary Institute's Le Cordon Bleu program.

I never attend freebie tasting events for the media, but I do make note of them. When Pink Taco sent out the invite to last month's menu unveiling, though, they really threw down the gauntlet.

In bubblegum pink letters on woodgrain-embossed brown cardstock, it proclaimed, "Year one was about the buzz, year two is about the cuisine."

Are you kidding? You guys waited a whole year to focus on what you're feeding people at your restaurant? Well, if that's not an invitation for food critics to investigate, I don't know what is.

Beyond the revamped menu, Pink Taco sure tried to lure me in with its raucous image. For a split-second, the oversized Lucha Libre mural and the Stones' "Paint it Black" blaring from the sound system sucked me back in time to an ex-boyfriend's bedroom. But, ultimately, I couldn't trick myself into believing I was anywhere but a Vegas-style tourist trap.

One of the first things that caught my eye after I adjusted to the chaotic decor was the lame beer selection — Corona and Sierra Nevada were listed as "imports," and the only things on tap were Miller Lite and Coors Light. On another visit, I was seated on the patio with a lovely view of the Fashion Square parking lot across the street, which just made me laugh. Those were just hints of mediocre meals to come.

For starters, Pink Taco's namesake was entirely forgettable — which is to be expected, I guess, when you come up with a racy restaurant name and then try to give it a signature dish. Anyway, the "famous" pink tacos were a quartet of small, chicken-filled fried tortillas dressed up with refried beans, serrano cream, corn, and avocado. The filling was moist, but lacked seasoning. Even the cream sauce had no peppery kick. Aside from a pickled onion garnish that added some tang, they were quite bland.

Those are not the same pink tacos that debuted a year ago — the style of fried tortilla is different — although Chef Slattery plans to bring back something closer to the original. When I called to ask him about the changes, he told me that almost everything on the menu is new, and that he'll continue to tweak it.

"Scottsdale gives us a good cutting of very different people," he said. "It's definitely a testing ground for us."

One of the trial versions of Slattery's new pink taco even had pickled egg on it, but that didn't make the final cut. "We went for something a little more trendy," he said.

Considering his culinary background, I can only wonder what Slattery would come up with if he didn't have to satisfy Everyman tastes.

The chile relleno wasn't to die for, but at least it was smothered in tongue-searing red ranchera sauce. Golden raisins and a dollop of herb-flecked goat cheese provided some relief from the heat. The Mexico City hot dog flirted with spiciness as well, thanks to a side of jalapenos. It was a huge, cheese-filled, bacon-wrapped chorizo sub, piled high with tomatoes, avocado and onions. I thought it tasted okay, but it was a nightmare to eat the sloppy thing. Annoyingly, I couldn't detect even a whiff of garlic on its side of so-called garlic fries.

Ordering the "North of the Border" ribs was a mistake. There were two full slabs of tamarind and chile-seasoned barbecue ribs on the plate, and they were fatty through and through, not even tender. What a waste. They came with some of those miserable "garlic" fries too, so the only thing left that was edible was a parmesan-dusted cob of corn.

I felt sorry for one of my dining companions, whose enchiladas suiza was a disappointment. The menu description sounded good — corn tortillas, roasted chicken, tomatillo sauce — but in reality, it had a strange, musty aftertaste. My friend ate only a few bites and resorted to eating chips and salsa.

The entree-sized salads were awful too. Not that the veggies weren't fresh, but they had that super-cold, straight from the fridge taste. Even worse, so did the meat — cold grilled chicken, in the case of the chopped salad, and a meager portion of icy shrimp in the ensalada camarones.

A few things were decent — "Pink Puerco Tacos" with slow-cooked pork; pan-seared sea bass topped with citrus cream sauce and batter-fried onions (nothing Mexican about it); citrus-grilled salmon with pineapple-mango pico de gallo — and everything was reasonably priced, with most entrees under $15. But I just can't let this place off the hook for a few middle-of-the-road dishes.

Never having been there before the chef change, I couldn't tell you whether Pink Taco's gotten better or worse, only what I think of it now. I've never seen such a hyped-up restaurant, and truly, I wish my opinion of the place could be equally brash in one direction or another. Loved it! . . . or . . . Hated it!

Instead, I feel like I've been watching mediocre porn and can't stifle a yawn.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig