H.L. Mencken wrote, "No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public," which is why shopping malls now rarely offer more than a "food court" -- a royalist term for a carnival arcade of greasy vendors or the lowbrow snack operations tucked inside SuperTarget or Wal-Mart.
I blame the "malling" of America on Kansas City's development mogul J.C. Nichols, who created the first "shopping center" in the early 1920s. But Nichols didn't invent the enclosed shopping mall. The first one in America was built outside Minneapolis in 1956; three years later, Kansas City went under cover with Ward Parkway Shopping Center.
But malls peaked in popularity in the early 1990s and have been on a downward swing ever since. Metcalf South was the ne plus ultra of indoor shopping in 1967; now it's a ghost town. Mission Center got a major facelift in 1989 but still doesn't appear to attract masses of shoppers to its oddball mix of chain stores and boutiques, including a candle shop that sells votives perfumed to smell like "fresh-picked cotton" and a dollar shop where I found some retro gold lamé pot scrubbers, a fashion accessory no glamour kitchen should be without.
I'm not saying that Mission Center is irrelevant, but it's not the destination point that it was in 1989, when it reopened with the sexy new Coyote Grill, the second restaurant created by PB&J founders Bill Crooks and Paul Khoury. The young restaurateurs had been launched by the success of their first mall venue, the Paradise Diner at Oak Park. (They closed that restaurant in 1997, when its lease expired.)
History may repeat itself with the Coyote Grill, which has gotten less sexy but remains popular. "We have to decide if we're going to sign a new lease this year or move the restaurant out of the mall into a new location," Crooks tells me.
"We're seriously thinking about moving the restaurant," he says. "We're one of the few reasons people are still coming to this mall, and I'm not sure that our landlords appreciate that."
Something has to give, because although chef Thomas Dudley's spin on Southwestern cuisine is still a draw and the service is excellent, the place looks dated and shabby. Hal Swanson's interior was never his best work; the restaurant has a few clever decorative elements, but it still evokes Bonanza or The Big Valley. The oversized rustic chairs are too heavy and awkward for the curvy dining room ("the adobe cave," my friend Carmen calls it), and I've always resented the long and twisted path to the restrooms -- which have been shockingly grungy lately -- straight through the servers' station.
When the Coyote Grill opened, it attracted a lively hipster crowd, but lately the patron mix reflects the population of Mission: an over-55 crowd or young couples with small children. And the place isn't cheap, like most of its neighboring Mexican restaurants, which might rub some diners la manera incorrecta. But one pays a price for creativity, and it's the rare local Mexican cantina that offers a quesadilla stuffed with smoked chicken, peppers, onion, dried cranberries, Caciotta and goat cheeses, and cranberry chutney.
I doubt you'll find a griddled crab cake with lightly wilted arugula at any other local Tex-Mex restaurant -- certainly not one dappled with "terrorized seasonal fruit." Terrorized? "It's been highly seasoned," explains Crooks, denying that the fruit had been smacked around and tortured before being hacked up and thrown into a compote.
Crooks terrorized me by insisting that the Tex-Mex Wontons, stuffed with ground pork and fresh corn, were made with traditional wonton wrappers, even after I argued that the little round puffs definitely tasted as if they had been covered in slightly sweet empañada pastry. A more lively Asian-Mex fusion appetizer is the plate of crab taquitos -- Ráo Rangoons, as it were -- with crabmeat and cheese tucked into bite-sized straws of rolled blue- and yellow-corn tortillas and swirled in a hot-sweet sauce made with honey and chopped jalapeño.
At one meal with my friends Bob and Marie, we decided to eat "lightly" after greedily munching on a starter of fluffy goat cheese and amber cloves of roasted garlic, which we spread on slices of toasted baguette with spoonfuls of oily tomato pesto. Marie made a dinner of two crab cakes, and I nibbled my way through a hefty Chicken Caesar Wrap tucked into a jade-green spinach tortilla. Bob had ordered the Tequila Pasta, one of the restaurant's signature dishes -- a leftover from the Paradise Diner -- though I've always found it to be a bland concoction of linguini and chicken in cream sauce too modestly flavored with hints of tequila and lime.
At my next outing to the restaurant, with Bob and Carmen in tow, Bob decided he wanted something with a lot more punch and ordered the smoked baby back ribs. They're slathered with Coyote's barbecue sauce, dominated by the potent flavor of cumin rather than by the traditional ketchup and brown sugar of most local blends. I liked the bite of the sauce but thought the meat on the ribs was tough and chewy. I was impressed with the elegant service touch that preceded the presentation: a freshly folded napkin and lemon wedges for hand cleaning. Bob thought the ribs should have been more succulent, less stylish.
On that note, I worried about the potential chewiness of a stuffed calamari steak, despite the mouthwatering description of the dish on the menu: "stuffed with shrimp and queso fresco." But the fat, golden half-circle of squid was served hot and crispy on the exterior (it's flash-fried before being baked in the oven), white and tender inside. Cutting through the flesh with a fork, the filling of pink shrimp and creamy-white Mexican "fresh cheese" bubbled out over a pile of hot linguini already smothered in a tequila-jalapeño cream sauce. It was a decadently rich dish, but wonderful.
Carmen had been advised by her boyfriend (a longtime fan of the restaurant) to order the Coyote Grill's fresh fish. She chose that night's special, a slab of red snapper encrusted with herbs, pan-seared with red peppers, then topped with a sweet mango salsa. "Very lovely," she said, offering me a flaky chunk of the fish. "Light and elegant."
Of course it was. Despite the Southwestern influence of the menu, this isn't a humble taqueria -- in fact, there are no tacos on the menu (though there is a hamburger) -- and even the pork-stuffed burrito, generously laden with high-butterfat sheep's-milk cheese, was a gourmet affair.
The desserts were equally dramatic. No sopapillas or fried ice cream here. The traditional PB&J offerings -- crème brûlée, bread pudding, and that gooey chocolate slab wrapped in phyllo pastry -- were the signature sweets here, as well as a hot, sugar-dusted chocolate confection that our server called a "torte," though it wasn't. It actually was a cross between a cupcake and a steaming, old-fashioned baked pudding. It was perfectly lovely, though we were warned it would take "a few minutes" to prepare. I nearly fell asleep by the time it arrived at the table, unfashionably late but gloriously good.
We watched customers come into the dining room from the parking-lot entrance, not through the mall doors. I wondered if shopping malls were over. But it's hard enough being a critic without being a mall-content, too.