Cafe Reviews

Sports Digest

Shannon Alexander's, 4855 East Warner, Phoenix, 8936525. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10p.m.

My friends know I like to be hospitable. If my pals are hungry, they know they can come over and eat. If they're blue, they can come over and talk. If they're stressed out, they can come over and relax in the hot tub.

And if they're interested in watching televised sports, they can come over and get verbally abused.

That's because the members of my all-female household think Saint John the Divine seriously erred when he stopped counting the Horsemen of the Apocalypse at four. Had the NCAA and the NFL been around 2,000 years ago, they're certain the apostle would have added Football to the apocalyptic mix of War, Pestilence, Famine and Death. ("Behold a pale horse; and his name that sat on him was Buddy Ryan.")

It's not easy to stretch out on the family-room sofa with a brewski and concentrate on analyzing the finer points of the Cardinal offense while those nearest and dearest to me glower and mutter "Neanderthal" and "moron" under their breath.

"Why don't we do something today?" begs my wife, unpersuaded by my reasoned argument that nine hours in front of the tube trying to cover the point spread qualifies as meaningful activity. "How do you get Dad to do sit-ups?" asks one of my daughters. "Put the remote between his knees," says the other, to mutual, teenage, high-fiving hilarity.

A man's home is supposed to be his castle. But during football season, mine isn't even a Motel 6. If I want to watch a game in peace, I'm compelled to flee to the comforting environment of a sports bar. There, I'm surrounded by nurturing folks who don't regard my viewing habits as evidence of social deviancy.

Shannon Alexander's is just about as good a spot as there is for the football demimonde to gather in the Valley. It's an uncommonly genteel-looking place, adorned with potted palms and vases with dried-flower arrangements. The inner part of the room houses the bar, while booths and tables run along the tiered perimeter. No matter where you are, however, you won't have to swivel your head to catch all the satellite action, broadcast on four ten-foot screens and 34 monitors, each measuring 26 inches.

But what separates this Ahwatukee sports bar from most of its competitors is the breadth of its menu and the quality of the fare. I could even see coming here to watch an ESPN tractor pull.

Shannon Alexander's seems to have cooks in the kitchen, not merely employees armed with can openers. For first-quarter nibbles, you can't go wrong with fresh, homemade tortilla chips accompanied by a thick, spunky salsa. The Cardinal Skins munchie sends out good vibes, as well. These are potato skins stuffed with chicken and cheese, and it's clear they weren't poured out of a frozen 50pound bag.

There's something on the menu for just about any taste. Fans into greenery might try tackling the enormous cobb salad, a trough-size platter filled with grilled chicken breast, a scoop of blue cheese, shredded jack and Cheddar cheeses, real bacon, tomato, olives and hard-boiled egg. A perky honey-mustard dressing makes all the ingredients easy to swallow, even if your team just turned the ball over.

Sandwich fans will be delighted with the Philly cheesesteak, a tasty blend of lean, thin-sliced steak and sautŽed onions and peppers bonded with a layer of melted cheese. The side of homemade onion rings that came with it added to the sandwich's charms.

The 12-ounce cut of prime rib is perfect if you dream of playing on the defensive line. I've had sports-bar slabs of prime ribs that were tougher than Lombardi's Green Bay Packers. But the meat here is surprisingly tender and juicy, without excessive gristle.

Preparing fish taxes the abilities of most Valley seafood restaurants, let alone sports bars. But the kitchen here did a competent job with the broiled halibut, which came out of the flames before it could turn leathery as pigskin. Terrific, right-out-of-the-fryer potato chips and steamed veggies, meanwhile, furnished worthy complements.

Even dessert gets some attention. Inparticular, there's the wonderful caramel apple granny. Tart Granny Smith apples are loaded into a shortbread crust, then moistened with caramel and toffee-studded custard. Sometimes, life is sweet.

Remember Buddy Ryan's pronouncement when he sailed into the Valley: "You've got a winner in town." He must have been talking about Shannon Alexander's.

Big Daddy's Sports Lounge, 721 East Dunlap, Phoenix, 8611034. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 6p.m.

Big Daddy's Sports Lounge is a grandiose name for an unpretentious, blue-collar neighborhood tavern. The regulars amuse themselves in a variety of ways. They down pitchers of Coors and Bud. (Foster's and Beck's are on tap, but, in three visits, I never heard a call for either of these higher-priced suds.) They shoot pool and toss darts. They bet at the OTB window and root in the greyhounds. They play sports trivia games broadcast over a closed-circuit network, then hoot when the "No Gambling" warning is flashed. They compare tattoos. They flirt with the waitresses. And they smoke like Mount Saint Helens. You'll inhale enough secondhand smoke to require a nicotine patch.

And they show good judgment by eating while they watch football. Some of this pub grub is pretty tasty.

You couldn't tell from the Buffalo wings. I ordered them at the "suicide" heat level, which caused the waitress to gasp, "No one orders them that way." Well, maybe some customers do, but, after a couple of nibbles, their mouths are too numb to talk about it. If you need a physiological stimulus to down an enormous quantity of beer, these wings will provide it.

Don't look for Shannon Alexander's-style cobb salads or halibut entrees here. This is sandwich territory. And Big Daddy's sandwiches manage to find the target.

The meat in the Philly cheesesteak had no gristle, and it came lined with lots of oily onions and peppers. The barbecued beef and ham sandwiches were even better, aided by a snappy barbecue sauce that brings the meat to life. The French dip is just a fancy name for a roast beef sandwich, but the beef here was reasonably juicy. So was the burger, a sizzling quarter-pounder topped with lettuce, tomato and onion. The menu says that the accompanying fries are fresh-cut. Well, maybe. But the rubbery ones I got surely hadn't just jumped out of the fryer into my burger basket.

One caveat about the sandwiches, however. They're small, gone in maybe five or six bites. I wouldn't blame some of the guys here for thinking that they were hors d'oeuvres.

You could order pizza instead, but that would be about as wise as betting on the Cardinals. Big Daddy will never be mistaken for a Neapolitan pizza maker. The pizza is done in by a stale, off-putting crust and a barbecue-flavored sauce that's about as Italian as Frank Gifford.

If you're into the upscale-sports-den scene, BigDaddy's is probably not for you. But if you're looking for a chance to watch a football game in peace, chow down on a decent sandwich and nurse a cold one, this place meets all the criteria.

Philly's Sports Bar & Grill, 1826 North Scottsdale Road, Tempe, 9466666. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1a.m.; Sunday, 10a.m. to 1 a.m.

Perched on the Tempe and Scottsdale border, Philly's aims to appeal to both populations.

The university crowd should enjoy the low prices--nothing goes for more than $6.95--and the comfortable sports-bar feel. That means beer-company-supplied pennants and posters, friendly young waitresses and plenty of televisions.

Scottsdale patrons should find satisfaction in the number of good beers on tap, like Harp, Bass Ale, Sierra Nevada and Celis. They may also be attracted to what Philly's calls its new "international menu."

Yes, there are the usual fried mozzarella sticks and Buffalo wings munchies. But there's also a fresh veggie platter with a dill dip. The first-rate basket of beer-battered artichokes is a welcome deep-fried change of pace. And the enormous plate of blue corn chip nachos, laden with beef, cheese, tomatoes, jalape–os and onions, should take care of the entire offensive line's appetite.

Occasionally, however, Philly's reach exceeds its grasp. Can anyone give me a rational explanation as to why chicken Kiev is on a sports-bar menu? What is this, the Russian Tea Room? And, as you might expect, Philly's dried-out version of this classic dish is fit for neither Russian royalty nor the football-viewing proletariat. Your best bet: punt.

The accompanying salad brings good news and bad news. The good news is that it's a classy mix of greens, without a shred of iceberg lettuce in sight. The bad news, though, is that these tired greens had lingered in the kitchen long past their prime.

I don't think too many Englishmen would recognize the shepherd's pie, ground beef and vegetables under a layer of cheese-coated mashed potatoes. That's because ye olde ground beef is sharply flavored with chili powder, not exactly a traditional ingredient. On the other hand, this recipe twist produces a tasty result which the English would do well to consider.Continuing the globetrotting theme, Philly's offers Oriental chicken salad. There's not much to it--a huge bowlful of romaine, crisp Chinese noodles and grilled, teriyaki-basted sliced chicken breast. A salty, piquant dressing, though, helps goose everything up.Closer to home, there's a righteous wineburger that can be profitably teamed with zippy blue cheese. This coupling produces aburger that bites back. Look for eight different versions of Philly cheesesteaks, too, as well as a vegetable sandwich on whole wheat.

Philly's tries hard to offer something forevery kind of sports fan: vegetarians, gourmets, burger meisters, salad supporters, beer aficionados and devotees of the deep-fried. With a little tuning up, it could be a threat to make the sports-bar playoffs.

Shannon Alexander's:
Cardinal Skins
Prime rib (12-ounce cut)

Big Daddy's Sports Lounge:
Buffalo wings (12)$3.25
Philly cheesesteak

Philly's Sports B ar& Grill:
Blue cheese wineburger

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Howard Seftel