After experiencing the Arizona Chicken Café, I am left with one big question: Why?
Let's go back to Economics 101 and apply some lessons to the restaurant biz, just for kicks: It's about supply and demand, baby. If you're going to open a restaurant, you need something to make people want to eat there. Maybe the place is in a location underserved by whatever cuisine you're offering. Or perhaps through décor, price or a service gimmick, you can draw people in. In any case, your restaurant needs to supply something that people demand.
This leads us to the Arizona Chicken Café, a restaurant that opened last spring at Fort Lowell Road and Campbell Avenue, right next to a La Salsa, a Baggin's and a Jack-in-the-Box, all of which also serve some sort of chicken. Its name is not a misnomer--it's all about chicken, in salads ($6.25-$6.50; a small garden or Caesar salad sans-chicken costs $4), in wraps ($5.45-$6.45) or on its own, rotisserie-style (from $3.50 for a quarter-chicken with dark meat to $7 for a whole bird). It's a fast-food, counter-service place, where you get your own drinks, silverware, etc. And its décor can be summed up in one word: yellow. Lots and lots of yellow. (Although there are black tables for a little balance.)
After hearing all this information, please ask yourself: Is this a place you are just dying to check out?
My first visit came during a recent weekday lunchtime. It was about noon when Hugh and I arrived. One other person was in the restaurant, eating; otherwise, it was just the staff, Hugh, lots of yellow and me. I ordered a buffalo wrap ($5.45), which includes chicken, romaine lettuce, tomato, jack cheese, buffalo sauce, red onion and blue cheese dressing. I also ordered the house salad ($6.50), with romaine, chicken, feta cheese, avocado, broccoli, carrots, bell peppers, tomatoes and croutons, along with a choice of dressings (I got Italian). Hugh got the Asian salad ($6.50), with romaine, chicken, almonds, Chinese noodles, pasta, green onions, mandarin oranges, carrots and Oriental dressing. All dishes come with pita bread. Also, as an aside to all you UA students out there, the Arizona Chicken Café offers a nice discount to CatCard holders.
We chatted, listening to the piped-in '80s tunes from 104.1 The Point, during the 12-minute wait for our food. When it was finally brought out, we were glad to see that the large salads both looked fresh, and we dug in. They were pretty good, although not perfect. There was almost no feta to be found on mine, for example, and the Italian dressing was bland. A bite of Hugh's salad proved it to be tastier than mine.
My wrap, too, needed some work. For one thing, the chicken inside was cold. I know wrap ingredients can be hot or cold, but in this case, the wrap would have benefited greatly had the chicken been warmed up. The cold chicken cubes were basically flavorless, and the blue cheese was in light supply, leaving the tart buffalo sauce as the dominant taste.
After getting to-go boxes and packaging up what remained of our salads, Hugh and I left, pondering what to make of the experience. With so-so prices, so-so service (12 minutes to get all-cold food at a non-busy restaurant is not good) and stuff (chicken!) you can get all over the place--including three places within a 10-second walk--why would we ever make a point of returning to the Arizona Chicken Café? I told Hugh that maybe the rotisserie chicken--the one thing we didn't sample--would give us a reason.
I returned several nights later to try it out. I called ahead, requesting a half-chicken with two sides ($8); I chose macaroni and cheese and the garlic mashed potatoes over several pasta salads, rice primavera, fruit salad, red potatoes, corn, pea salad and a small dinner salad.
It was ready when I arrived; I paid my check and zoomed home to eat. The good news: The chicken was moist and nicely cooked. The bad news: It tasted just like the stuff you'd get at the grocery store deli counter or Boston Market. The skin was tasty--peppery and peppy--but none of that flavor got to the meat. The sides, however, were worse than what you'd get at those places. The mac and cheese, which the menu touts as oven-baked with cheddar, had almost no flavor at all. The garlic mashed potatoes--red potatoes smashed and seasoned with garlic--were better (big bonus credits for using real potatoes and leaving some of the skin on), but they, too, were mysteriously bland.
So there, in a nutshell, is the Arizona Chicken Café. I just don't get it.