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Fast Casual Redux 

Sauce serves unique specialty pizzas, salads and wine in a hip atmosphere.

If you want to know what the biggest craze in the restaurant industry is these days, I have two words for you: fast casual.

A cross between fast food and traditional sit-down service, fast casual is everywhere these days. Big chains are doing it with Mexican food--McDonald's is pushing its Chipotle chain, while Wendy's has Baja Fresh--and smaller chains are getting in the game, too; witness P.F. Chang's Pei Wei Asian Diner. Heck, even local businesses are going fast casual; there's Broadway Village's Kokobana Mexican Grill, and now, Fox Restaurant Concepts--the folks behind Wildflower, Bistro Zin and the new NoRTH--is bringing fast casual to pizza, salads and wine.

Here's how fast casual works: You order at a counter, and when the food's ready, you either get it yourself, or it's delivered to your table. The food is more expensive and upscale than your traditional fast-food fare, and in some cases, it's healthier (but not ALL cases; some of the nutritional stats of the grub can be heart-rending, especially at the fast-casual Mexican restaurants). The atmosphere at the restaurants is fun, vibrant and modern if you want to dine out, but takeout's more than encouraged for those who want to chow down at home.

I'd heard about Sauce before my recent visit, but I had no clue it was a fast-casual place when I walked in the door of the restaurant, located at Casas Adobes Plaza at Oracle and Ina roads. I asked for a table; the pleasant young woman at the ordering station looked at me for a few seconds, and then responded: "You can sit anywhere. You order here, and we bring your food to you. Are you familiar with the fast-casual dining concept?" Oops.

I said I'd wait for my friend, Rene, outside, and I took the time to study the menu. It was a quick study; the menu, like those at some fast-casual places, is fairly limited. Ten specialty pizzas, with toppings ranging from mozzarella and fontina cheese to prosciutto and melon, are available ($8-$9), along with three lasagnas (vegetable for $8, chicken or beef for $9) and six chopped salads ($5-$7). Eight wines by the glass ($3.75-$6) or bottle ($15-$24) combine with four beers ($3.25-$4) to make up the alcoholic beverage list. Finally, cheesecake and tiramisu are there for dessert options; for some reason, they're on the wall menu, but not on the individual menus.

When Rene arrived, we went inside and ordered. I chose the chicken, pine nuts and gorgonzola salad ($7), along with the sausage and caramelized onion pizza ($9) and a glass of the Sebastiani pinot noir ($5.25). Rene ordered the rosemary potato, spinach, feta and olive tapenade pizza ($8) and a soda.

The atmosphere screams young, trendy and hip. Everyone working on this Friday night looked below 30, and the occasional facial piercing was to be seen. The walls are an orange/brown/red color that Rene deemed "burnt tomato"; the Sauce Web site calls it "tangerine." Black-and-white framed prints dot the walls, while booths and tables go down both sides of the restaurant, with a seating counter in the middle. The food preparation area sits in the rear of the room, so you can watch your food being made if you desire. There's a large outdoor seating area, covered with a black tent sort of thing; heating lamps are interspersed to make the climate comfortable during these winter months.

Then there's the restaurant's icon: a round red splatter. It's supposed to be, well, sauce, although most sauce splatters I've seen have a tomato texture, with the occasional visible bit of spice. This icon is red and smooth; it looks like a blood splatter to me. Maybe all the violence in our culture has warped my mind. Who knows?

Our drinks and my salad were delivered first. The wine did not come in a wine glass, but rather a small, cylindrical glass. No problem; the wine was nice, with just a bit of oak, but not too much. The salad was delivered on a plate, which was a problem, because the plate was warm--a big restaurant faux pas. Thankfully, the salad on top was delicious. A variety of different shredded lettuces, along with what tasted like a light vinaigrette, gave the salad a varied taste that was complemented nicely by the pine nuts, the cheese and the tomatoes. It was a definite winner, the warm plate aside. The accompanying roll, however, could have been used to pound nails, and it went uneaten.

Before I ate even a small fraction of my salad, our pizzas were delivered (in a regular restaurant, this would have annoyed me, but at a fast-casual place, speed is the name of the game). They looked delicious, quite colorful and thin. We're talking take-a-New York-style-pizza-and-place-a-sanitized-Acme-brand-anvil-on-top thin. These were the thinnest pizzas I'd ever seen.

But how did they taste? In one case, excellent, and in another, so-so. Rene adored his pizza. It had an earthy, yet spicy flavor. The potatoes, sliced the long way, looked good, but the real flavor came from the rosemary and the tepanade. Rene devoured his entire pizza without a second thought.

My pizza was decent, but a bit of a disappointment. The sausage was good--not too spicy--as were the onions, but the sauce was lacking, even though I asked for extra sauce. The real annoyance for me, however, was how thin the crust was. I like thin-crust pizza, but this is ridiculous; it was so thin, it was cracker-like. I ate half of it and took the rest home.

Enjoying our conversation, Rene and I decided to stick around and have dessert and coffee. I ordered the cheesecake ($4); Rene ordered the tiramisu ($4). Again, Rene got the better dish. My cheesecake, topped with a few strawberry slices, granola and whipped cream, was OK, although I couldn't taste cheese at all (a common problem with cheesecakes on this side of the continent). Rene's tiramisu, on the other hand, was a creamy espresso delight. I had a few bites before he ate the rest; good stuff.

Overall, we enjoyed our visit to Sauce. The atmosphere's fun and light, and we felt quite welcome and comfortable. The salad was a delight, although they need to chill their damn plates. And if you like thin--we're talking paper-thin--pizzas, well, you're in luck. (If you like deeper pies, then don't go here, unless you plan on ordering four and stacking them.)

And keep your eyes open; three (!) Sauce restaurants are slated to open in Phoenix, and another is planned for Tucson, at Broadway Boulevard and Beverly Avenue. The fast-casual craze rages on.

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