In an effort to give diners a unique and tasty experience, a restaurant sometimes tries a little too hard, thereby missing the goal entirely.
Such seems to be the case at Charlie's Tavern and Grill. Charlie's, which opened just a little more than six months ago in the old Blue Sahuaro building, wants customers to "enjoy a trip to the Old West as you feast on unique Western cuisine" (according to the menu). The "unique" I'll give them, although in this case, unique isn't necessarily a good thing. But Western? The only things Western about Charlie's are the pictures on the walls, the antique wagon in the dining room and the cutesy names given to the dishes.
When I think Western dining, I think of several types of steaks, ribs, beans, white bread and so on (as did all of the folks I spoke with in an informal and unscientific survey). Charlie's menu has only two types of steak (stuffed tri-tips and a sirloin filet, served with a variety of sauces), and that's it. No ribs, no beans, no baked potatoes, no bread. Many of the ingredients used are not "Western," either--consider the brie, orzo, pesto, feta, walnuts, gorgonzola and sun-dried tomatoes! The combinations are a bit disconcerting as well, but we'll talk about that later.
On our first visit, we walked into the bar area and met with a surreal experience. You could see the dining room but couldn't hear anything, and there didn't seem to be any way to get there. What caused my confusion was a glass wall that separates the dining room from the bar. We had to backtrack through the entryway to get into the dining room, as do the servers when they bring the food from the kitchen.
We looked over the menu and were both a bit overwhelmed. To begin, Charlie's serves 14 different kinds of pizza (none of which caught my eye). The owners also own Frog & Firkin near the UA, and the Blue Sahuaro was known for its pizza, so I guess that makes some sense, but it makes one feel that Charlie's is a sports bar/restaurant rather than an Old West joint.
We went there hankering for a steak, so I ordered a stuffed steak: The Palomino with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted garlic and pepper jack ($16.95).
John ordered the Josey Wales, with--again, I'm quoting the menu--"bacon onion and bourbon BBQ" ($18.95). All steaks come with Charlie's fries.
From the super-long appetizer menu, we ordered melted brie with roasted garlic ($7.25) and saguaro skins topped with pesto, artichoke hearts, fresh tomato and brie ($7.75). We also ordered a glass of Sangiovese ($5.75) and a Pilsner Urquell. The server returned minutes later and told us they were out of the beer, then asked John if he'd like a Miller Lite instead--hardly an equitable replacement. Our server was friendly, though you got the feeling that she might be new to the profession; she seemed a bit unsure of herself.
The appetizers arrived shortly. Both were huge servings: There were six skins in John's order, and three full heads of garlic, two hunks of brie and at least 10 slices of French bread in mine--but this was the only bread we were served on either visit.
We dug in. I love roasted garlic and Brie, but the garlic was underdone and didn't spread in that smooth, buttery way it should. John's skins contained too much of the potato and weren't the least bit crispy. The stuffings were also too much--the pesto contained such an excessive amount of garlic that the rest of the flavors were lost; the artichoke hearts were totally unnecessary. Perhaps parmesan would have blended better with the whole deal.
We hadn't even made a dent in our appetizers when our salads arrived, and shortly thereafter, our steaks showed up. The server did offer to return the steaks to the kitchen to keep them warm, but that's not what you do to steaks. We accepted them and sat facing our appetizers, salads and entrées, on the table all at once. We never touched the salads; we took them home for later. The greens were OK, and my raspberry vinaigrette was passable, but the sun-dried tomato with feta and roasted garlic dressing was not (too much garlic).
The first bite of my steak confirmed the feeling that the kitchen staff subscribes to the Emeril Lagasse School of Cooking--the more garlic, the better. But garlic needs to be cooked right if it is going to be used in such huge proportions. Garlic was the first taste that hit me; it overpowered the other stuffings and the meat.
John's steak was also a disappointment, especially considering the price. The meat was underdone (he chose not to return it to the kitchen), and the flavor was bland. The bacon, onion and barbecue flavors that were mentioned on the menu came from a side sauce that resembled spiced-up ketchup. The fries were bland.
Desserts weren't even suggested, so we asked. Two types of pie and brownies--all made in-house--were the only offerings. We skipped dessert.
Lunch a week later wasn't much different. There wasn't anything special about John's Charlie burger ($5.25, plus 50 cents for the cheese), and there was no mention of it being served on an onion bun--something that should be noted, especially on a menu as chatty as Charlie's.
My Patsy Montana salad ($7.25) had grilled chicken, artichoke hearts, pepper jack cheese, orzo, feta and sun-dried tomatoes on a bed of greens; I went with the Italian vinaigrette. We also tried a Pearl Hart slice, a thick-crust pizza with red sauce, tomato, garlic, mushrooms and extra cheese ($4.25). The salad had been billed on our previous visit as big enough for two. It wasn't. Again, too many flavors got in the way of what could've been a good salad. More greens would've helped. We only took a few bites of the pizza; it suffered from (say it together now) too much garlic.
The restaurant business is intense in this town. It might be in the best interests for the folks at Charlie's to take a look at the whole picture and make some changes: ingredients, menu offerings, portions and the proper use of garlic are all places to start. Plus, within a few miles in almost any direction of Charlie's, you'll find great steak places (some with Western atmospheres, some without).