Cafe Reviews

West Side Sorry

For the first time in my life, I'm wishing that I adored baseball. Specifically, baseball as played by two teams: the San Diego Padres and the Seattle Mariners. Because then I could be as excited as the rest of the world seems to be over the new, improved northwest Valley, where the two teams play their spring training games.

I like the sport; it's a lot of fun. I played it all through high school (the softball variety, actually) and have the awards to prove I really grasped how to hit and field (a glittery trophy, even!). But my fond memories of freshly cut grass and the sound of wood hitting leather don't translate into a passion for actually watching America's most patriotic sport. And that doesn't give me much reason to venture out to the venues that have sprouted up in the Arrowhead area so dramatically over the last year.

The northwest Valley is Arizona's new golden child. There's long been money in the burg ($500,000 homes, anyone?), but suddenly, all eyes are upon it because of . . . sports. Because of the NHL hockey arena under construction. Because of the NFL stadium that has eluded so many politicians for so many years, and has finally landed in Glendale. Because of the Peoria Sports Complex, which – ooh – is home to those men in tight pants making more money in a season than I will in a lifetime just because they're good at playing catch (I saw some players at practice last week, and they were wearing truly ugly orange jerseys. If that's what real money buys, I'm not impressed).

As it is, I venture out to this new territory purely in search of what turns me on – restaurants. Thousands of fans will be swarming to the area for the opening of Cactus League play, and they need to eat, and I've been hearing this is the area to go for a fantasia of remarkable restaurants. The reality: utter disappointment in my sources, and the completely inescapable conclusion that no matter how charming the date, no matter how "important" the game, nothing is going to draw me back here until major changes occur in this dining scene.

Suffer along as I recite the long and disappointing list of game-day nosh choices that plague the stadium vicinity at 83rd Avenue and Bell. I've never seen such a clump of chains in one spot – it takes me less than 10 minutes to drive by them all, though it feels like hours of grief.

There are the truly tired slop shops of Red Robin, Buca di Beppo, Applebee's, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Tony Roma's, IHOP, Ruby Tuesday, Fuddruckers, Black Angus, Chili's, Bill Johnson's Big Apple, and old (Old) Town Country Buffet. There is that handful of those spots that work in a hungry pinch – Sweet Tomatoes, On the Border, Rock Bottom and Mimi's Cafe. There are a few that might warrant a single visit only because they're brand-new concepts to the Valley – Texas Road House, Abuelo's, Fox & Hound, and Texas Land & Cattle Co. There's also the kill-me-if-I-see-another P.F. Chang's, plus a newcomer that qualifies only as a run-screaming-into-the-night proposition: Elephant Bar, an African safari-theme place that prides itself on "elephant size" portions and delivering food within seven to nine minutes of placing an order.

It takes too much work to find the only three eateries that aren't corporate monoliths in this neighborhood. And yes, there are just three, count 'em, three, consisting of McDuffy's Wide World of Entertainment, Mike's Grill and Palo Verde Pizzeria. Worse, though, there are none, don't bother counting, none, that would compel me to come back except for the promise of a professional ballplayer's paycheck.

Sigh. What's this world coming to, when the most interesting dining choice in the area is McDuffy's? This is a joint that originated 25 years ago in Tempe as a college hangout featuring cheap beer and televised ASU games, yet now bills itself as Peoria's "Wide World of Entertainment." It cost more than $3 million to build. Believe me, the money didn't go into the food, but into the digital Disneyland of more than 75 giant TVs blanketing the two-story playground, complete with a video arcade, pool tables and a disco-ball-lit dance floor.

I lost my sports nut companion as soon as we walked through the door – he literally missed his seat in our booth, falling over as he couldn't divert his eyes from the flashing electronic eye candy all around. He barely glanced at the 50-item menu, so distracted was he by the genius it must have taken to wire all the strobe lights and projectors hanging from McDuffy's ceiling.

It's true that nobody but the six-pack-and-supper crowd is coming here for the Campbell's soup spinach-artichoke dip, runt potato skins, God-awful greasy fish-n-chips or a French dip fashioned from chipped bits of beef alongside from-the-bag fries. Non-sports fans stuck here can survive on the St. Louis ribs (sticky sweet sauce, but tender meat), or a good-enough chicken salad, layered with breaded chicken tenders, mixed greens, roma tomatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms, bacon and mozzarella. Yet no amount of alcohol can justify $6.95 for a TV-dinner-caliber plate of mac-n-cheese – at this, finally, my sports buddy glances away from the big screen and grimaces. "What the hell am I eating?"

I have great hopes for Mike's Grill, just steps away from the stadium, knowing that owner Mike Korvessis used to be a prime player in our dining scene as owner of the lauded Mike's Golden Crust. He trained under another local Italian talent, Tomaso Maggiore (Tomaso's). The place looks terrific, all pretty with endless displays of imported olive oils, marinated veggies, colorful poster-prints and black-and-white-checked tablecloths. The menu is massive, with acres of Italian and Greek specialties. The plates are enormous – even my burly sports fanatic buddy curls into a submissive ball when his lunch arrives as a heaping basket of garlic-herb focaccia, a brimming cup of bean-beef-tomato-bow tie soup, and a linebacker-size platter of Cajun seafood pasta stocked with mussels, calamari and crab.

Yet this food is lousy. With no TV screens to distract him, sports buddy notices how weak his seafood is, the skinny mussels, the tough squid, the ersatz crab bits. Antipasto is horrid, a mound of honest-to-goodness lunch meat and mozzarella logs slopped with wet strips of eggplant and marinated bell pepper, olives, marinated artichoke hearts, and the weird inclusion of pine nuts under gluey-thick Italian dressing. More of the same Oscar Mayer meat shows up on the "ultimate submarino," a bulky travesty of salami, mortadella, prosciutto, capicolla, olive loaf, marinated red peppers, mozzarella, lettuce, tomato, onion, green peppers, pepperoncini and a heavy tapenade spread.

I can't stomach the watery excuse for hummus that comes with the focaccia. And don't get me started on the ziti e bisi. I'd rather eat concession-stand nachos than another bite of this greasy, chalky Alfredo goop of quill-shaped pasta, bacon-bit-style pancetta, chopped asparagus and the bizarre addition of whole snow peas. The only worthwhile bites I find here, in fact? Spanakopita, with two huge phyllo triangles plump with fresh spinach and feta over chunky tomato basil sauce; and a passable lasagna al forno, rubbery but layered with lots of ricotta, sausage and meat sauce.

By the time I get to Palo Verde Pizzeria, I'm feeling like clubbing myself over the head with a baseball bat. Sports buddy is cooing happily again, at least; there are two TVs to watch, and a showcase of photos of stadiums across the nation. I'm not so thrilled with the order-at-the-counter service, however, the paper plates and cups, or the embarrassing salad bar lined with iceberg and little else for $3.59 (one trip only). I'm not keen on cooling my heels in the cafeteria-feel dining area for 15 minutes while my pizza is being baked, and my lips curl when the order taker asks me if I'd like – gads! – Velveeta on my cheese steak.

I calm down when the food arrives. Palo Verde does a fine job with its pie, basing it on a clever sourdough crust that's perfectly puffy and chewy. Toppings are topnotch on my signature PV pizza, laden with good mozzarella, pepperoni, red onion, green pepper, Canadian bacon and sausage. And my cheese steak is choice (mozzarella, not Velveeta), with plenty of nice beef, sautéed onion and green pepper. If I had to sit through a four-hour spring training game, this stuff would see me through just fine. But make a special trip for it? Nah.

I can't believe I'm suggesting that people wanting good eats visit a chain, yet I am. There's a Carvers on 81st Avenue and Bell. Go there, and get a nice, juicy prime rib. Or hit Arriba, on 79th Avenue -- it does some tasty things with New Mexican Hatch chiles.

The Peoria Sports Complex will be rocking with 25 games through March 26. With a capacity of 11,000 fans at each outing, that's a lot of mouths to feed. But make that 10,999. This mouth will be staying home, thank you very much.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet