The Spot: Z'Tejas Grill, 10625 N. Tatum Blvd., Phoenix, 480-948-9010. www.ztejas.com. There are three other locations in metro Phoenix, with a fourth coming to Bethany Home and 16th Street in July.
The Hours: 11 am-10 pm Sunday through Thursday, 11 am-11 pm Friday and Saturday Brunch: 10 am-3 pm Saturday and Sunday Happy Hour: 3:30 pm-6:30 pm Monday through Friday, 2 pm-5 pm Saturday and Sunday The Interior: Clearly, people love the ambiance at Z'Tejas. Come Happy Hour, this location is usually packed. Although metal accents lend the decor a contemporary vibe, it's still warm and inviting, thanks to plush upholstery, a bank of TVs and a community table near the entrance. It's a comfortable afternoon hangout for people watching: lively enough to be interesting, quiet enough to carry on a conversation.
The Food: Although the menu skews mostly Southwestern, it also wanders into Asia and the American South, revealing the sort of all-things-to-all-people approach that smacks of corporate restaurant-think. Happy hour offerings draw almost exclusively from the appetizer list but at seriously reduced prices.
So catfish beignets, which cost $9.75 on the dinner menu, are just $5 during happy hour. Good thing too because I'd be mightily peeved to pay full price for them. They in no way resemble beignets, which are fritters, which, by definition, involve dough. These are catfish strips, plain and simple -- dredged in cornmeal, fried quasi-crisp and served with jalapeño tartar sauce. Yawn.
Blackened catfish tacos ($5) aren't tacos either but something closer to burritos, rolled in thick flour tortillas with tortilla strips, Southwestern slaw, jalapeño mayo and avocado and served with Asian dipping sauce. Didn't we permanently retire these fusion-y combos 10 years ago?
Ahi Chipotle Citrus Bites -- diced ahi tuna, mango and jicama on house-made tostada rounds, topped with avocado-wasabi aioli -- traverse similarly clichéd territory, but they taste good just the same, while beef tenderloin street tacos do the job without being particularly interesting.
Almost everything is sided with limp, soupy Southwestern slaw that looks and tastes like it's been in the fridge too long.
Frankly, it all feels a bit phoned in.
The Drink: Don't expect serious bargains in this department: $1 off well drinks and margaritas, $2 off all house wines by the glass, $3.50 for Bud Light draft, $4 for Stella Artois draft and 50 cents off all other draft beers. Try the Frozen Chambord Margarita, a swirled and girlie slushy of a cocktail guaranteed to make your sharp edges a little blurry ($8.25, $7.25 during happy hour).
The Conclusion: Spending $54 including tip for food that sounds better than it looks and tastes average at best doesn't exactly induce happiness.
Granted, four items is excessive for two people, considering there's a cast iron skillet of complimentary cornbread, which outstrips every appetizer anyway. But for those who consider happy hour a social event and an opportunity to relax with alcoholic beverages, Z'Tejas will do (and clearly does do) just fine.