Cafe Reviews

There's Something About Margarita

Tequila Grill, 4363 North 75th Street, Scottsdale, 480-941-1800. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week; bar stays open until 1 a.m.

Almost 500 years ago, Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado led an expedition through the American Southwest, searching for the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola and their fabulous stores of gold.

His plundering conquistadors were the first Europeans to reach the Grand Canyon and the first to travel the Rio Grande Valley. But they never did find any gold. After two years on the trail, they returned to their base in Mexico, empty-handed.

These days, as everyone in our thriving Southwestern metropolis knows, there's plenty of gold in them thar hills. It's just not the same kind of gold Coronado was looking for.

Though Southwestern soil isn't very rich in precious metals, it is rich in precious foods. Had Coronado been accompanied by a trained chef, who might have recognized the land's potential bounty, perhaps the region's bloody history could have been avoided. Imagine, instead of fighting, native Americans and Spanish invaders sitting down together in peace, sipping happy-hour margaritas, nibbling chips and salsa and swapping recipes.

The national craze for Southwestern fare has been running for almost two decades now, too long to be considered just a fad. Although slowing down a bit elsewhere, the cuisine is still going strong here. And why not? Locals are practically weaned on basic ingredients like tortillas, chiles and cilantro. The Valley's 12 million hungry tourists, meanwhile, also stimulate demand.

In downtown Scottsdale, the proprietors of the handsome new Tequila Grill know the Southwestern concept still has a lot of mileage left. And as veterans of Sam's Cafe, they also know what to do when they're behind the wheel. As far as I'm concerned, this is how the Southwest was won. (Note: Don't confuse Tequila Grill with Tequila's Mexican Restaurant, a nearby south-of-the-border place.)

It starts with the look. Tequila Grill is one of the most strikingly designed restaurants in town. Outside you'll notice a steel fountain and eight brick columns, each topped with flaming copper vessels. If the Aztec ritual of human sacrifice ever makes a comeback, the priests won't have to search for a setting.

The marvelous bar area, however, is where I'd prefer to worship. It's a very inviting watering hole. The surface of the circular bar is covered with frosted glass, smartly lighted from below with soft green light. Arising from the center of the bar circle is a mammoth, copper-topped tower, cleverly designed to resemble an agave plant, where the liquor bottles are shelved and the televisions are hung. The room is also furnished with cushy sofas and chairs, where you can settle in, puff away on a stogie from Tequila Grill's humidor and nurse your drink.

The colorful, casual dining room is just as eye-catching, done up with wood, brick and metal accents. No decor detail appears to have gone unnoticed. When's the last time you were in a restaurant with entrees under $20 where the salt and pepper shakers echoed the motifs on the seat cushions and curtains?

For the most part, the chef is as talented as the designer. So is the bartender, whose high-proof margaritas can take the sting out of even the worst day at the office. Especially appealing is the Border Margarita, a rousing combination of Herradura blanco, Grand Marnier, Cointreau and fresh lemon and lime juice, served on the rocks. It's more soothing than therapy and, at seven bucks, somewhat more affordable.

In what appears to be a disturbing new trend (I've noticed it in several places recently), Tequila Grill doesn't put out a basket of bread or chips. Call me old-fashioned, or call me cheap, but this is an idea whose time has definitely not come.

Still, the kitchen prepares several appetizers that can pleasantly knock down hunger pangs. Texas caviar wraps suggest that the chef has visited P.F. Chang's. He's transformed this popular starter, getting rid of the soy and ginger Asian notes and substituting Southwestern touches. In this version, butter lettuce fronds are heaped with diced chicken, sautéed onion, chile, zucchini, squash, celery and roasted corn. Roll up the lettuce and munch away. The wonderful hacienda dip with terrific fresh chips would be even better if the dip came in something other than a thimble. Fashioned with chicken, spinach, artichoke and bubbling cheese, the dip is good enough to eat with a spoon. But you'd better not -- as it is, even with miserly dunks, you'll run out of dip with two-thirds of your chips remaining.

Rocky Point shrimp, five meaty, chile-rubbed crustaceans in a crunchy beer batter, get a boost from a sweet-and-spicy chipotle honey sauce. However, stuffed mushrooms, served with a useless spiced pepper butter, don't get much beyond ordinary.

Main dishes display flair and care. What the menu calls "Chef's Specialties" really are, and all except one come in under $20, practically a bargain in this part of town.

The one that doesn't, Beef Tenderloin Roll, still gives you your money's worth at $21.95. You get an intriguing, offbeat blend of flavors: tender beef stuffed with mild Anaheim chile and Dungeness crab, moistened in an earthy mushroom sauce goosed up with guajillo chile. Sides of excellent mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus contribute to the pleasure.

I'm impressed, as well, with roasted pork tenderloin, carved into slices, fanned across the plate and draped with a beguiling ancho chile sauce. The inevitable ahi tuna also receives deft Southwestern treatment. A hefty slab first gets a seasoning coat of chimayo chile. Then, one half of the fillet is smoothed with a zippy red chile sauce, while the other half is covered with a mild avocado sauce.

The inevitable poultry dish has something going for it, too. Drunken Chicken is a double breast rolled up with spinach, chile and feta cheese, covered with an imaginative, wine-freshened yogurt sauce. Too bad the side of bland "Pacific rice" didn't rise to the same level of creativity. How about Mexican-style rice or a native grain like quinoa instead?

The pasta section also has its charms. Usually, Southwestern-style pasta dishes leave me wishing the chef hadn't tampered with the traditional Italian models. But a couple of pasta dishes here managed to win me over.

Bourbon Street Southwest may be too weird for some folks, but by the time I tried to figure out whether it had crossed the line, I had cleaned my plate. It's a very hearty mix of andouille sausage, chicken and shrimp, tossed over a mound of orzo and lentils. The spunky "Southwest Cajun sauce" adds an unexpected line of harmony.

There's nothing particularly fiery about the Linguini en Fuego. But that's about the only shortcoming I could find in this combination of shrimp, crab and pasta, embellished with porcini mushrooms, peppers and lovely sugar snap peas. (Why don't more restaurants take advantage of this luscious summer vegetable?) The ingredients are finished with a lovely jalapeño cream sauce that moves the total beyond the sum of some already very good parts.

Fish tacos will bring a smile to your lips and change back from a ten. I expected the usual half-ounce of mystery minced fish, placed with tweezers in a lettuce-heavy tortilla. But Tequila Grill refused to meet my low expectations. Instead, I got two flour tortillas, each filled with a good-sized halibut fillet glazed with a vibrant poblano chile salsa and guacamole that tasted as if it had been just scooped out of an avocado.

Naturally, Tequila Grill features pizza and sandwiches, for the one person in every group who won't eat anything else. I could definitely picture myself here with a margarita in one hand and a slice of the Bordertown pizza in the other. A chewy crust, a light barbecue sauce and a mound of toppings -- big strips of jerked chicken, fat chunks of portabella mushroom, four cheeses, red onions, tomatoes -- spark my enthusiasm. In contrast, the disappointing Phoenix Cheesesteak sandwich has little to recommend it. Too much bun, too little meat and no Southwestern punch do it in.

The homemade desserts keep up Tequila Grill's standard. Our waitress tried to warn us off the margarita pie -- "People don't like it," she said. But I sure did, with its graham-cracker crust, custardy filling, candied citrus peel and tart bite. It's a good way to top off a meal, refreshing and not too heavy. The staff touts the bread pudding at every opportunity, and I can understand why. It's rich and dense, infused with Bailey's and sweetened with white chocolate. But I'd get rid of the raspberry sauce -- the bread pudding is already sweet enough. A dash of whiskey sauce would give it some counterbalancing oomph.

Still, the clear dessert winner is Indian fry bread, a steaming, crispy, fresh-fried pillow of dough drenched in a lick-your-lips honey caramel sauce. What could be simpler, or more Southwestern? Fortunately, it was teamed with low quality ice cream, or else someone might have had to hose me down.

Tequila Grill seems to have everything you could want in a Southwestern restaurant: good looks, first-rate margaritas, tasty fare and reasonable prices. If you're a culinary Coronado, your search is over.

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Howard Seftel