Southwestern cuisine seems less about geography than about a moment in time. Mark Miller opened Santa Fe's Coyote Cafe in 1987, and this kind of Mexican-American Indian-cowboy fusion food seemed to skitter across the country like tumbleweeds. Not as spicy as Mexican food, with bigger cuts of meat (steak!) and fewer humble cuts and organs (tripe?!), it quickly got watered down in every mall in the country, squiggles of pale green avocado sauce, cacti and murals of coyotes, snouts lifted midhowl, performing a kind of shorthand.
Sure, there are great Southwestern restaurants in the Southwest, but the fare often reads as dated elsewhere. Tucson's Southwest Grill actually goes back nearly as far as Miller's original: 1990 and counting, positioned in the ICOT Center to be a business lunch and private party choice. Since David Earp took over the company as president in 2006, the decor and lighting have gotten a lift, as has the level of service.
On a couple of visits, the gargantuan dining room wasn't particularly busy. Catering jobs, the patio bar and business in the three private dining rooms may be keeping this big ship afloat. And the food? Eh. The menu is much too vast for the kitchen to exhibit real mastery with each dish. Both a colossal chimichanga ($8.95) and "famous sizzlin' fajitas" ($12.95) left me scratching my head. The former I had with shredded beef, the latter with adobo chicken, neither particularly flavorful, and the latter seemed bereft without beans and rice (that's extra).
Earp can be commended for trying out new menu items. On one visit, a new Rick Bayless-inspired marinated sirloin with a chipotle garlic salsa ($13.95) had some flavor panache, but the meat itself was too chewy and tough. I seemed to have better luck with simpler grilled fish items — a mahi mahi ($14.95), but rethink the super-sweet salsa, or a straightforward salmon ($14.95) enriched by a swirl of balanced tequila-lime beurre blanc.
Desserts are a largely skippable group of those gringo ice cream/fried tortilla/chocolate drizzle concoctions, the house margarita is ordinary, but there is a nice short list of premium tequilas.
Earp has made improvements with efficient and cheery service as well as upbeat, tidy decor. Although the grill work shows promise, the classic Southwestern dishes need more focus and verve.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.