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Z'Tejas: Happy Hour Report Card

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The Spot: Z'Tejas Southwestern Grill, 7221 W. Ray Road, Chandler. (480) 893-7550. Other locations include Scottsdale, Tempe and Phoenix. ztejas.com

The Hours: 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Hours vary slightly by location, and the Scottsdale Z'Tejas includes a reverse happy hour from 9 p.m. to close.

The Details: Well drinks and their award-winning margaritas are $1 off, while glasses of house wines are $2 off. You can get a Bud Light Draft for $3.50 or a Stella Artois for $4; all other draft beers are 50 cents off. Like at Thirsty Lion last week, the 12 appetizers are divided into three discount categories: $4 includes the Spinach & Mushroom Quesadilla; for $5 you can get Green Chile Pulled Pork Nachos or Tableside Guacamole; and for $6 you can get Grilled Shrimp & Guacamole Tostada Bites or Cast-Iron Skillet Dumplings.

We ordered drinks - a gin martini (someone's been watching Mad Men on Netflix), a Negro Modelo on draft (a dark, lager-style beer), and - after a lot of browsing - the 20th Anniversary frozen 'rita. The Z'Tejas margaritas (frequent winners around here) come in frozen, on the rocks, or hand-shaken at your table, with a wide variety of flavors to choose from. There are also three-margarita flights for the truly indecisive.

See how we rated this popular chain's happy hour after the jump.

​The 20th Anniversary margarita ($7.50) consisted of the classic 6th Street Margarita swirled with Monin Wildberry and topped with Grand Marnier Liqueur and a raspberry sugar rim. It was a sweet and tangy frozen treat, not at all subtle, but perfect for cooling off after one of the many spicy apps.

We started with two old favorites: one Tejas Trio ($5 - chips, guacamole, chile con queso with chorizo, and salsa picante) and two Seared Sesame Ahi Tunas ($6 each - seared rare - though you can also order it done - with blackened seasoning and topped with peppercorn vinaigrette, spicy soy mustard, and wasabi). With generous portions of dips and bottomless chips, the Tejas Trio is always a crowd-pleaser. The chile con queso is spicy, the guac is fresh (they're really into guac here), and the salsa picante actually has a unique, almost sugary-sweet taste to it.

You may not realize what a steal the Seared Sesame Ahi Tuna is until you peruse the dinner menu. The dinner portion of this dish, with sides, is priced at $21.75. The appetizer portion is enough to share and still just as tasty: the peppercorn vinaigrette is sweet, the mustard is spicy, and the wasabi is, well, really, really spicy. The dish is served with slices of pickled ginger; swirl these in the vinaigrette for a particular treat.   

​Finally, we tried a new appetizer in the Chile Pork Verde ($5 - simmered in tomatillos, Anaheim and serrano peppers, and melted jack and cojita cheese). Served in a skillet, this dish comes with a side of black beans and hot tortillas. The result is warm and spicy (like many of the signature dishes here), with tender bites of pork.

​The Interior: Z'Tejas has the huge interior space typical of chain restaurants, with an extensive bar and patio area. The kitchen is open, so you can hear the sizzles of your meal being prepared. It's decorated in a subtle southwestern theme, with flashes of bold colors and copper accents. The best feature is probably the booths: They're plentiful and roomy, and like at Nello's Pizza the servers will typically seat you in an open booth before a table, so you don't need to ask.

The Cost: One margarita, one beer, one martini, and four appetizers split three ways (we were hungry) came to just over $40.

The Conclusion: It's happened more than once that a friend has confessed - in a hushed voice, as if embarrassed to cross their own postmodern, mom-and-pop sensibilities - that the Z'Tejas happy hour is a favorite hangout. It's like the dirty little secret du jour that everyone already knows; but that doesn't mean it can't still take you by surprise. With a menu of drinks that's almost as hefty as that crazy Cheesecake Factory menu, plus flavorful, sweet and spicy apps in the chain's always generous portions, it's hard not to love this happy hour. That said, it's not a happy hour for beer drinkers on a budget, and with small drink discounts the check added up quickly. The price may look hefty, until you remember that you've basically had dinner, and an incredibly filling dinner at that (and maybe that's the real secret).

Overall Grade: A

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