"Hotel food has gone through a renaissance. Hotel food used to be bland and boring, but that's not true anymore."
—Jason Weaver, executive chef of The French Room in Dallas' Adolphus Hotel, to USA Today
Hotel restaurants don't get a fair shake. Yes, a lot of lame food is still served at hotels, but more and more places are aiming to raise that figurative bar. That brings us to Fire + Spice, at the Sheraton on Grant Road.
Fire + Spice opened earlier this year after a significant renovation at the Sheraton; it's modeled after a sister restaurant with the same name at the Sheraton Phoenix Airport Hotel in Tempe. The menu at Tucson's Fire + Spice—masterminded by executive chef (and Tucson native) David Ferrara—is more modest than the menu at the original Fire + Spice. A dozen starters (appetizers, soups and salads) join four sandwiches and 10 entrées as lunch/dinner offerings. (Breakfast is served from 6 to 10:30 a.m., daily; we didn't get to sample anything from the breakfast menu, which includes a Sonoran Benedict, $9, and chorizo and eggs, $9.)
The verdict: There are some true gems to be found at this poolside restaurant, although some dishes were not executed as well as they could have been.
First off, a warning: The restaurant is harder to find than it should be. We walked in the hotel's main doors and wandered around a bit before getting directions. Even then, we got lost, walking all the way around the courtyard/pool area before finding the restaurant. Here's a tip: Go in the main doors and follow the wall to the left until you see a glass door into the courtyard area. Go through that door and keep left until you see a bar/restaurant area, next to the pool. That's Fire + Spice.
Garrett and I chose to be seated inside. We ordered the native nachos with chicken ($8), the jalapeño snake bites ($8) and a cup of tortilla soup for starters ($4). I chose the grilled fish tacos (an overly pricey $16) for my main course, while Garrett picked the Baja enchiladas with chicken ($12).
Our server—who was quite capable, although he could have used a little more assistance—brought the nachos and snake bites first. The nachos were a complete delight: Red and blue corn chips were mixed with ample amounts of tasty, moist chicken machaca, asadero cheese, guacamole and salsa fresca. The snake bites were also delicious—but how could jalapeño peppers stuffed with a cilantro mousse, cream cheese and shrimp before being wrapped in bacon not be delicious? The only problem was that the shrimp's flavor was masked by the more dominant ingredients.
The tortilla soup was the strangest dish we sampled. It was presented beautifully—in a odd white bowl, with the broth poured over the other ingredients by the server, à la the late, lamented Terra Cotta—but I had several qualms. First, tortillas were barely a factor; a few chips offered a visual accent and a small bit of texture, but that was all. Second, the broth seemed beef-based. The resulting soup (which also included tomatoes, cilantro, avocado, asadero cheese and a lot of pepper) was not unpleasant, but it was not necessarily an improvement over expectations.
The entrées were merely acceptable. My tacos included a fair amount of breaded cod, along with corn, red pepper and onions; they were fine, but were actually overshadowed by the excellent grilled squash served alongside. Garrett's two small chicken enchiladas were surprisingly bereft of chicken. The enchiladas were listed as "spicy" on the menu, although there was very little spice, and it all seemed concentrated in the sauce on the top. It was an execution issue: With some more chicken and a better distribution of sauce, these enchiladas could have been quite good.
We decided to end the meal with the "chocolate of the moment": Mexican chocolate cake ($7), with cinnamon adding the "Mexican" element. Although it was a bit dry, we enjoyed it.
We returned about a week later for lunch. We had almost the entire restaurant to ourselves, and we chose to sit outside and enjoy the beautiful weather. Fire + Spice actually offers three fairly distinct seating options: outside near the pool; inside near the bar (open to the pool area), where TVs offer an upscale sports-bar feel; and the quieter back area (although a few TVs can be found there, too). Black tables mix with Southwestern colors in the carpets (light orange, brown, yellow, grey) and wallpaper (orange to beige); overall, it has a nice, clean feel.
We split the Sonoran quesadilla with chicken ($8) to start; I picked the Santa Rita steak salad ($11) as my entrée, while Garrett selected the grilled chicken pasta ($15). The quesadilla, divided into four pieces, was enjoyable, although the kitchen was again stingy with the chicken.
My steak salad was the best entrée we enjoyed on our two visits. The strip steak was perfectly prepared (medium rare), and the greens, tomatoes and cojita cheese were all fresh. The cilantro lime vinaigrette was a bit strong, but overall, this was an excellent salad. Garrett's pasta, on the other hand, let us down. It was surprisingly watery; perhaps the kitchen didn't drain the pasta sufficiently before adding the chicken and the roasted-red-pepper cream sauce. Also, while the menu promised sun-dried tomatoes, there were almost none to be found.
Execution, or a lack thereof, again reared its head with dessert. We chose the house specialty: s'mores ($7). The graham crackers were crisp and flavorful, and the freshly made marshmallows were amazing. However, the amount of chocolate was minute, both on the s'mores and in the accompanying shots of hot chocolate (with the chile-dominated house spice mix coating the shot-glass rims). The hot-chocolate shots were so watery that the kitchen clearly made a mistake.
If the kitchen ever gets its act together, Fire + Spice could actually become truly special. As it stands, Fire + Spice is still worth a look, thanks to the delicious appetizers and the fine service.