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Local Urchin, Big Heart

Olive R. Twist Serves Up Goodness Against All Odds.

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THE NAME TELLS us the story: Oliver Twist, the scrappy orphan made famous in the Dickens tale as the misfit who survived by his quick wit and ability to take hard knocks, probably best remembered as the small boy with the large and trembling eyes, peering up to query, "Please sir, more gruel?" Oliver was always able to take his troubles and transform them into blessings. Little did he know how right at home he would feel at his namesake's café.

Located in an unassuming strip mall just a few blocks shy of Craycroft Road, Olive R. Twist quietly opened under the ownership of Tony Erickson, former manager of Dirtbags and a well-known local bartender. Certainly not particularly flashy or flush, this restaurant has stealthily built up its reputation by word of mouth.

I can't seem to recall what was housed in this space before, but clearly a parade of venues has marched through and the evidence is still with us. Grabbing a bit from every successive restaurant, the decor of Olive R. Twist is ... well, original. Make yourself comfortable at one of the Mexican style tables and chairs, rack up a game of pool, or maybe show up in time to belt out a few tunes at the karaoke station. Don't question the large unadorned nichos in the wall, the saguaro-rib light fixtures, the beleaguered black booths or the weary saltillo tile floors. Let us speak only in hushed tones of the huge exposed ductwork painted jet black. If you really want to try to pull the concept all together, think of someone, possibly an orphan, who grabbed a bit from everyone around him to don a passable outfit. After the initial shock, we found ourselves actually warming up to the idea; after all, must there be a "concept" to every restaurant that opens its doors?

As we settled into the little black booth and listened to our waiter, I couldn't recall the last time I met a more earnest server who spoke with such glowing pride about the menu and upcoming events. I didn't know such good will still existed in all of America. Even more importantly, I realized I was sitting in a real honest-to-god, hands-on, bonafide restaurant, one with all its flaws showing and still damn proud.

In such places, the customer always comes first. To honor its patrons, Olive R. Twist hosts regular events. Some are small, like the karaoke nights on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The feasts are a bigger deal and the restaurant even makes T-shirts to commemorate them: crawdad cookout for an anniversary, a fish fry to celebrate the Fourth of July. And an event called Wine and Swine--a parking lot pig roast and red wine fest--will celebrate Labor Day.

The menu doesn't put on airs or try to be more than it can be. One gets the distinct impression that most of the menu is meant to be quite simply filling for people who are hungry, or possibly for those who need something to soak up a little alcohol.

Don't look for anything heart-healthy here. The menu is broken down into categories: Appetizers, Bread Bowls, Salads, Spuds, Sandwiches and The Grill. Each section has plenty to offer, and all of it is hearty.

We tried the Southwestern Melt ($5.99), a generous sandwich stuffed with turkey, green chiles, pepper-jack cheese and a spicy red chile mayo. The turkey was tender and the mayonnaise slightly spiced. One wishes that the chiles weren't canned, but one always wishes the chiles weren't canned. Then one overhears the uninitiated complain when a chile is freshly roasted, peeled and incendiary. We just think those people should stay at home or not eat green chiles.

From the grill we sampled a burger ($5.49), and it was just as advertised: a fat patty, tomatoes, onions and pickles, served with waffle fries. This is standard bar fare, and while there is nothing remarkable about it, it is honest and filling.

This holds true for most of the menu. The food is not ambitious, but meant to fill you up. One need look no further than the Bread Bowl. To Olive R. Twist's credit, the bread is baked at the Small Planet Bakery, and this does make a difference. Still, what is up with these hollowed-loaf tureens? Wildly popular, the bread bowl feels like just one more trend to endure.

We sampled the Cream of Potato Bread Bowl ($4.99) as well as the Spinach Artichoke Dip Bowl ($5.29). The soup was rich, thick and a little smoky, but I maintain that soup should be hot and eaten with a spoon. Of course it is delightful to dunk bread into it, but exactly how does one go about this when the bowl itself is made of bread? When one is finished scraping the soup out of the bread bowl, does one leave the bowl? Why eat a bowl of bread once the soup is gone? To me it feels like an empty promise, and in many restaurants I've noticed unhappy little loaves return to the kitchen, hollowed out and collapsed in on themselves.

Our Spinach Artichoke Dip bread bowl was no different, but at least someone in the kitchen had considered the dipping problem since the bread bowl arrived in a bristling nest of tortilla chips. The dip was quite good, full of chopped spinach and minced artichoke, creamy and satisfying in both texture and flavor. We used the chips, although the richness of the dip would have been better countered by the bread, but then we would have had no bowl. One sees the quandary immediately but grows weary of the debate. "Just shut up and eat the damn thing," groaned one member of the party. So we did. We picked, with chips.

To round out the lunch we tried a Spud and Salad combo ($6.99). The spud was one large baked potato, sliced in half and spooned with chili, a sprinkling of scallions and some melted cheese. The side of house salad was a generous handful of greens, a tomato slice and some cucumber. The presentation was straightforward, simple and refreshingly honest.

Possibly Olive R. Twist does so well with the weekday lunch crowd and weekend late-night scene not so much because the food is remarkable or even out of the ordinary, but because it's honest and good. Probably the restaurant's modest success has to do with the fact that the place is friendly, the service personable and earnest.

Well, that and the pig roast.

At last year's roast, the crowd was so large that they ran out of pig. This Labor Day's Swine and Wine Fest (September 3) promises to be every bit as festive, only this year insiders report there will be more swine, more wine, and, no doubt, a fat and happy crowd clamoring for more.





Olive R. Twist. 5305 E. Speedway Blvd. 319-8955. www.power-town.com Serving daily from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. V, MC, Amex, Discover, checks. Menu items: $2.99-$7.99.

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