Downtown Phoenix dining hasn't gotten much respect, historically. Not only has the restaurant quality traditionally been pretty weak, but after 5 p.m., there's been little to do in the neighborhood except dodge homeless folks clogging the sidewalks in front of deserted office buildings.
The downtown revitalization of the '90s hoped to change all that. Our fearless city leaders launched an all-out assault on the social concerns, solving the drug/poverty/crime situation by plopping down a Hooter's, McDonald's and a couple of brew pubs amid the decay. They brought us arenas. They stuck a few pretty, purple-painted light poles into the sidewalks, screwed in some light bulbs, issued press releases and, voilà, took back the night.
So now Bank One Ballpark glows like a cozy candle in the window, inviting us to return after sunset. Nestled in its comforting radiance is a restaurant bearing one of the Valley's more familiar names: Tee Pee Tap Room, an offshoot of the long-standing eatery Tee Pee Mexican Food at 42nd Street and Indian School.
Unfortunately, this Tee Pee hardly improves the downtown dining scene. First of all, it only serves dinner until 8 p.m., unless there's a game in play, in which case it stays open an hour after the final score is called. No foul there; that's the economics of running a business, and until a true downtown society emerges, what can we expect?
Yet even with my skepticism of the "pack 'em in and feed 'em before the game starts" mentality that inspired the eatery's expansion into the downtown area two years ago, I'm surprised at how poorly this place performs. I go in expecting to welcome an old friend; instead, I'm ambushed by a traitor. Rather than a sweet kiss hello, I'm assaulted by its fetid breath in my face (and it smells like enchilada sauce).
I don't get it. I've always enjoyed the original Tee Pee. It's been there since 1958, the golden child of two brothers and their wives, John and Gizella Hurguy and Mary and Bill Hurguy. In 1960, the Hurguys sold the shop to its present owners Tony (the Hurguys' accountant) and Anna Duran. Today, it's still in the clan, operated by the Durans' daughter, Kathy Killeen.
Tee Pee is a local landmark of sorts, adored by celebrities including painter/sculptor Fritz Scholder ("The Tee Pee has the world's greatest chile relleno"), Bill Andres, co-host of KESZ's "Beth and Bill" morning show ("My last meal would include a chile relleno from Tee Pee"), Today show weather guy Willard Scott ("I got taco lips -- as soon as I get to town, I hit Tee Pee"), late columnist Erma Bombeck, sports mogul Jerry Colangelo and actor/comedian David Spade ("Great egg rolls").
It's won numerous "Best of" and "Reader's Pick" awards, in categories including salsa, burritos, margaritas and best Mexican restaurant overall. Even folks with professional taste buds tout Tee Pee. Esteemed chef Vincent Guerithault confides that on his nights off he often orders Tee Pee's nachos with beans and extra jalapeño peppers, plus beef or fresh green corn tamales. A 1996 issue of Bon Appétit includes Tee Pee as a favorite "Chef's Night Out" indulgence.
Tee Pee has always been revered for its comforting, dark dinginess; its "presentation, what presentation?" disregard for frou-frou plates; and its dependable, cheap Mexican-American eats. It's a killer place in which to limp through a hangover.
With such solid lineage, the Tee Pee property just south of the railroad tracks couldn't be that much different, I assumed. It's run by Art "Zip" Killeen, Kathy's husband, an employee of the original Tee Pee for almost 30 years. When he opened this branch, he brought along the original recipes and one of the original chefs (17 years and still counting).
And actually, meals start out just fine. But hang on. This affiliate is not the cuddly cucina we've known lo these many years.
The new place certainly resembles the original, with no big bucks spent on decor. The joint is a minimalist bunker, with brown concrete floors, white block walls and bars on the windows. Rations are served at Formica tables under the fatigued gaze of piñatas that have suffered through too many happy hours.
It's quiet tonight; given it's a non-game evening, my dining companion and I have almost the entire restaurant to ourselves. (Beware busy times, however -- when the boxy dining room is packed to its wood-beam rafters, diners have to shout to be heard over the din.)
We settle in to unwind after a long, hard day. Good chips and salsa seduce us into reckless comfort, as crisp, baked tortilla bits disappear under great heaps of spicy salsa and the fiery hot sauce served at our request.