Why should Broadway be the only place to make good money on revivals? When the economy stinks, theater producers bring back hits from happier times. New productions of Hair, West Side Story, South Pacific, and Guys and Dolls are all currently running on the Great White Way.
Restaurants get revivals, too. When business at Yahooz — the cowboy-inspired steak-and-barbecue joint at Town Center Plaza — started flagging, owners Paul Khoury and Bill Crooks decided to close that show and produce a new one in the same space. Khoury and Crooks already owned the rights to an earlier production — the Coyote Grill — and decided a Southwestern-style menu could play perfectly well in a dining room that already looked like the set from Oklahoma! Two months ago, the carpeting was replaced along with the menu and the Yahooz sign on the building. The revival of Coyote Grill, last seen at the now-razed Mission Center mall in 2006, is now showing.
But it's not playing to full houses, judging from a recent Saturday night. Maybe word hasn't gotten out that there's something new going on in the old place. Or maybe the music playing over the sound system on that particular night — dark, turgid, depressing — had the same effect on other patrons as it had on me: I couldn't wait to get the hell out of there. I don't need to hear show tunes when I go out, but the miserable music sounded like something coming out of an old transistor radio that wasn't quite tuned to the right station.
I remember the original Coyote Grill, the one that opened at Mission Center 20 years ago, as whimsical, bright and charming. But not everyone agrees with that opinion. My friend Carmen referred to the space, with its clunky furniture and faux-clay walls, as "an adobe cave." But it was much more comfortable and inviting than this version, which feels like the Ponderosa Ranch without cowboys. Dazzlingly attractive and well-trained servers make up for that, though, filling the roles of sassy showgirls and lithe leading men.
The food is good, too. Not surprisingly, the menu is an amalgamation of old Coyote Grill favorites — Squawking Nachos, Tex-Mex Wontons, Tequila Pasta — as well as a few holdovers from Yahooz (burnt ends, a rib-eye steak, the Rio Grande Platter) and several new dishes.
I still have a copy of the original Coyote Grill menu, which evokes nostalgia not for the prices (the Tequila Chicken Pasta, for example, was only $4 cheaper than it is now) but for some of the old dishes that didn't make the cut: Neon Chicken, Snapper de Rojo, Mango Duck and Cookie Tacos.
Oh, well. It's a new Coyote Grill and a new economy. Instead of bringing back the old Santa Fe Crab Dip, the new menu has Pablo's Espinaca Dip, the same tired cheese-and-spinach mixture served at every other Tex-Mex joint in town. My friend Bob loved it. We ordered a couple of starters while waiting for our perpetually tardy friend Jaylene, who never showed up (the explanation we heard later was so dramatic, it would have made a good play). We ate too many chips and too much of the cheesy dip, and I revived my love affair with those delicious, little fried wontons filled with minced pork, corn, carrots and cilantro served with a "spicy dipping sauce" so sweet that it tastes like melted jam.
Too full to actually eat dinner, we paid the tab and vamoosed before the soundtrack plunged me into a vortex of depression.
Because the menu is the same at lunch and dinner, I returned a few days later for an afternoon outing with Carol Ann and Julie, both fans of the old Coyote Grill and eager to see the new version. Both women resisted the hard sell on the Margarita specials but were up for a couple of hearty starters. Julie noted right away that the "legendary Squawking Nachos," still made with tender chicken and Caciotta cheese, are more modestly portioned. "I remember a big mound of nachos," she said, looking down at a platter of neatly arranged blue-corn chips, each dotted with a single chunk of chicken and a wee blanket of melted cheese.
The new Gaucho Skewers are more appealing: nine wooden sticks, skewered with grilled chimichurri beef, spicy chicken or shrimp and jalapeño slices, served with vividly colored sauces, including a sunflower-yellow Peruvian aji chile as hot as lava. Another warning: This starter costs more than some of the entrées.
Other notes about the menu: It lists half as many sandwiches as the old menu, but all of them are new. Instead of a grilled pork tenderloin, there's a fried one — with white gravy. My arteries started hardening just from the description, so I opted for the Tacos a Las Brazas: a variation on the fajita theme, with tasty Argentinian spice-rubbed beef on a mound of grilled peppers and onions.
It was delicious but needed a sauce to spoon into those soft tortillas with all those peppers and onions. In fact, as soon as I tasted the punchy, peppery Voodoo Sauce blanketing Carol Ann's hunk of grilled King Salmon, I requested a little extra for my meal, too. Carol Ann raved over the salmon with such intensity, I was concerned that maybe there was something to the "voodoo" in that sauce.
Julie, meanwhile, quietly enjoyed the shrimp tacos: The crustaceans were marinated in lime juice and tequila, grilled up with tequila onions and folded into soft flour tortillas with a crunchy and spicy "taco slaw."
We were less wowed by dessert. The ladies wanted fried ice cream, which I detest, but they liked the waiter's description of vanilla ice cream encased in a crispy shell of crushed macadamia nuts and coconut. The shell, however, wasn't crispy at all — it was a sticky, chewy, soggy mess. But it was sided with fabulous, freshly fried, cinnamon-dusted churros. We ate those and ignored the main event.
"The visual presentation of the dessert — no, of all the dishes — was really impressive," Carol Ann observed between sips of coffee. "But is it me, or is the music really loud and annoying?"
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