At Arizona's Bar & Grill in Annapolis, low price, low heat

December 17, 1998|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The last thing Annapolis needed was another seafood restaurant, thought business partners Lee and Vicky Hatfield and Mike and Tammie Williams, so they decided to take a different tack.

Their idea for a new restaurant: a Southwestern bar and grill, with a menu priced low enough to compete with the chain restaurants and enough creative touches to give the place its own unique personality.

Open since late October, Arizona's Bar & Grill certainly succeeds on the price front. It's possible here to order an entree of fish, beef or chicken with two side dishes for under $10. And there's much on the menu to commend. But for those who prefer Southwestern food with enough heat to curl the toes of their cowboy boots, Arizona's is likely to disappoint. The hottest thing we sampled was dessert: a surprisingly fiery chocolate habanero cake that's not made in house.

That said, Arizona's is an appealing casual eatery, with a kitchen that tries hard to be creative. It may not be worth a 40-minute drive, but if you live or work nearby, it's a fine spot to grab an inexpensive meal or meet with friends for a drink.

More physical space seems to be allotted to the bar area, where there are roomy booths and smoking is permitted, than to nonsmoking areas of the restaurant. Perhaps that's why the menu lists more than 19 appetizers, including two soups.

They're worth ordering, too. The chunky hot artichoke dip had lots of pure artichoke flavor, and was served with thin, jet-black tortilla chips for a striking visual contrast. With fresh crab meat, white corn and a blend of Cheddar and jack cheeses, the crab quesadilla was better without any tomatillo salsa to mask its delicate flavors. We did find a use for the salsa, though, substituting it for the weak chipolte mayo that came with a teeming plate of blackened chicken bites. These morsels of chicken were unusual and delicious. They had been rolled in spices, which gave them a complex flavor.

For dinner, our pan-fried catfish also was coated in spices, but the blend had a perfumed aftertaste that was overpowering. Underneath the spice paste, though, the fish was impeccably fresh and flaky moist.

The beef for our fajitas was tender and lean, grilled with yellow, red and green bell peppers for a pretty mix. This dish came with all the usual fixings, from guacamole to pico de gallo.

The menu warns that the stuffed chicken breast is a spicy entree. Cut into medallions to reveal a stuffing of chorizo sausage, rice and peppers, the chicken was beautiful and tender, yet bland. It's almost as if it had been spiced for the lowest common denominator - the weakest tongue.

Arizona's hasn't been open very long, so it may take some time to fix all the little problems. When we visited, plates weren't garnished, rolls were stale. Our fajita pan waited so long in the kitchen, it had absolutely no sizzle left when it arrived at the table. On the other hand, side dishes of black beans and black-eyed peas were cooked from scratch, and service, while not sophisticated, was friendly and helpful.

Our waiter urged us to try the newest dessert on the menu, the fried ice cream. We did, and found the coating mushy. Don't make the same mistake. You'll be happier with the hot habanero cake or a light flan flavored with the barest hint of amaretto.

Arizona's Bar & Grill

1803 West St., Annapolis

410-262-9006

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: Major credit cards

Prices: Appetizers, $1.85-$7.95; entrees, $7.65-$13.95

Food: **1/2

Service: **1/2

Atmosphere: **1/2

Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *

Pub Date: 12/17/98

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