As a nightclub and bar, Playground completely understands its identity: It's a community building that happens to serve alcohol and play music. Tucsonans are welcome to get together, relax, celebrate and network in the bar and on the roof, or rent space for meetings, parties or weddings.
The food isn't quite as self-assured, but weirdly, the biggest problem with the menu isn't the food; it's the cocktails.
My first trip to Playground came around 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night. After taking a seat just in time to catch the tail end of happy hour (half-price starters, with specials on well drinks, wine and draft beer from 4 to 7 p.m.), I took a stab at the chicken tenders and French toast ($8) off the starters (appetizers) menu, the bacon & cheese sliders ($9.50) and the Broken Flowers ($9), one of their house-bottled carbonated cocktails.
The tenders and toast (three of each to an order, accompanied by HUB wings sauce and maple syrup) are a deep-fried play on chicken and waffles—and it's a pretty damn tasty, grown-up take.
The breading on the tenders was seasoned well, slightly peppery without being overpowering; the French toast sticks were crunchy outside, coated in a sweetened, cinnamon batter around a soft, chewy center. While you can eat happily without the dipping sauces, you'd be crazy not to apply them (yes, even the French toast with the wing sauce—the acidity of the sauce actually plays well with the sweet breading).
However, I wasn't as high on the cocktail. I appreciated the aesthetics of a drink poured from a 12-ounce bottle into a highball glass. Unfortunately, it didn't live up to its looks—a vodka lemonade with jasmine and oolong tea, it was just too damn sweet, which covered up any hope of tasting the tea or the vodka, and the carbonation was negligible, if there at all.
I took home the cheddar and bacon sliders, which came two to an order, and with a bag of New Orleans-based Zapp's Potato Chips (though you can substitute french fries or tots for a dollar). The sliders were more thick mini-hamburgers than White Castle-inspired meat-bread-and-cheese wafers, but that's no problem—the meat was flavorful, the cheddar was tasty and the bacon was thick, crisp and delicious. My girlfriend and I planned for a lunchtime trip, only to find the restaurant's opening had changed from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. We came back just after they opened, and we found the staff setting up for an event later that evening. That didn't impact the service, though both of us found it odd that we were served water in plastic cups rather than glassware.
We chose to each get a starter, an entrée and a cocktail. I went full carnivore, ordering the meatball starter ($7, topped with "angry tomato sauce"); the Greatness sandwich ($12) with a side of french fries; and the Johnny Utah ($8) to drink. Christa went veggie, with an order of the Shishito peppers ($7.50); the Crispy, Marinated Tofu entrée ($10); and the Lucille Two bottled cocktail ($8).
The meatballs were fine; the meat was rich and seasoned well, but the star of the dish is the mildly spicy Angry Sauce, which is simply delicious.
The grilled Shishito peppers, by themselves, aren't too impressive. But the mildly spicy peppers are great when drizzled with lemon juice and dipped in the rich, tangy aioli-like sauce that's provided. While Playground's portions are fairly generous, this plate in particular was so large that, considering the rest of our order, we had no hope of finishing it.
Christa's crispy, marinated tofu came mostly as advertised: The tofu was crunchy on the outside and spongy on the inside, stir-fried with noodles, hot peppers, cabbage, sesame and ginger. However, the ginger wasn't readily apparent to either of us, and the kitchen seemed to use a fettuccine-like noodle instead of the thin, transparent glass noodles noted on the menu.
The Greatness had a size that lived up to its name—a cheesesteak with bacon, salami, onion and sweet peppers wrapped in a hoagie roll. It's definitely recommended for meat lovers. My only complaint is that the salami and bacon overpowered the other flavors. That's not a bad thing in and of itself; I'd simply prefer to be able to taste all the ingredients in most every bite of a sandwich.
Unfortunately, my cocktail suffered the same problem as the drink from my first visit. The Johnny Utah, a rocks margarita with guava and elderflower liqueur, was just too sweet—though at least I was able to taste the liquor this time.
Christa's Lucille Two (her pick in place of the Escape from Manhattan draft cocktail, which the bar had run out of and couldn't re-create with the ingredients on hand) was a different story entirely: A gin cocktail with Lillet blonde, peach liqueur and Campari, it was strong, perfumy and completely out of balance. As Christa put it, "It tastes like an old, gin-soaked woman smells."
In all, Playground does a lot of things right. The portions are perfectly portioned for creating a communal feeling; the dishes look upscale enough to fit within the rest of the bar's atmosphere; and the menu has flavors to fit every taste, with inspirations from Asia and the Pacific (crispy, spiced tofu; the unreviewed Ma'Ono spam sliders) to traditional American food (cheesesteaks and pretzel bites).
What's odd is that the problem seems to lie on the cocktail side. Considering that Playground is a bar first, it's strange that the drinks (especially the premade ones) would be the part of the menu that needs the most work.
If you're heading to Playground, bring friends and order something to eat; just consider sticking to the excellent beer selection.