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Jumping to Serve 

Some Tucson restaurants could learn a thing or two about service from the new chain in town

One of the most consistent problems I've noticed at many Tucson restaurants involves service. For some reason, many restaurants just can't get it right. They're understaffed; the servers don't listen; they're slow; they're unenthusiastic. It seems like finding good people is a constant challenge for some locally owned places; I don't know why.

This is why I was stunned--and I don't use that word lightly--to walk in to a freakin' chain restaurant and get amazing service. It pains me to say this--I always root for the local guy--but a lot of local restaurant managers and owners could learn a lot by visiting Claim Jumper.

The Irvine, Calif.-based chain arrived here in January, and folks have been lining up at the El Con Mall restaurant ever since. The chain is known for its ski lodge-style décor--lacquered wood, huge beams bolted together, river rock and a chandelier made out of antlers all play a significant role in the look. The chain is also known for its obscenely huge portion sizes. Watch the folks leaving a Claim Jumper, and the majority of them will be carrying sacks and sacks of food home. At a time when the country's obesity rate is skyrocketing, Claim Jumper is not helping matters.

Garrett and I first visited the Tucson Claim Jumper on a recent weekday evening. There was a wait, as is standard (25-30 minutes, they said in this case), so we took our enormous vibrating beeper and went to sit in the bar. They don't serve the full menu there--although they do serve a lot in terms of pizzas, appetizers and other treats--so we each ordered a drink at discounted happy hour prices and waited for a table in the main dining area. After 15 minutes, the mutant beeper went off, and we were seated at a booth where we had a fantastic view of the bustling open kitchen.

The regular menu is gargantuan, with appetizers, salads, soups, sandwiches, burgers and all sorts of other entrées (featuring everything from meats to crab cakes to pasta). Nothing's cheap--half an entrée salad will run you $10.25, for example, with main dishes approaching $24--but seeing as the servings are enormous, the prices are appropriate.

We decided to get two appetizers--crab cakes ($13.95) and the seared ahi tuna rolls ($9.95). For entrées, I ordered the rib and chicken combo ($23.95), and Garrett got a half-order of the goldrush chicken ($12.95). Garrett also requested an appetizer salad, the bleu cheese wedge ($4.25 with meal; $6.25 separately).

Garrett's salad was delivered first, and the young server who delivered it asked, "Is there anything else I can get for ya?" The servers work as a team at Claim Jumper, meaning the person who delivers your meal may not be the person who took your order. And if you answer "yes" to the above question, you'll get whatever you need--more water, extra napkins, etc.--right away.

But we were fine, and Garrett dug into his salad. Actually, "salad" may be a misnomer: It was an iceberg lettuce wedge with bleu cheese crumbles, real bacon bits, tomato and red onion topped with a bleu cheese dressing. I stole a bite or four, and it was delicious.

Next came the appetizers. We were just dishing up, when literally about 45 seconds later, our entrées arrived. Our table was suddenly chock full of food. Our original server stopped by and asked if everything was OK, and I made an offhand remark, something to the effect that, yes, everything was fine, except that we were surprised to get everything at once.

About a minute later, the manager showed up, introduced himself and apologized for the fact that we didn't get a chance to enjoy the appetizers, adding that he'd removed them from the check. Seeing as the appetizers came to almost $24, that was no small write-off.

The food itself was pretty good--not amazing, but decent. Garrett and I disagreed about the ahi tuna rolls; they didn't do anything for him (Garrett felt that the tuna didn't stand out), but I thought they were rather tasty, albeit too greasy. The crab cakes were both delicious and tender. One of the two crab cake sauces--described as a mustard aioli--worked well. The other, described as a cilantro aioli, was gross and did not go with the flavor of the crab at all.

The entrées were also passable, if not spectacular. My baby-back pork ribs, coated with sweet, tangy barbecue sauce, were delicious; on the flip side, my half-chicken was dry and mostly flavorless. (I ate less than half of each and took the rest home.) My accompanying baked potato was prepared well, but missing the promised chives. Garrett's chicken was also dry, but the sour cream and mushroom sauce made up for that flaw, Garrett said. His mashed potatoes were bland, though he liked the inclusion of the potato skins.

Already stuffed, Garrett and I ordered dessert, in the spirit of research. Be warned: The desserts are gargantuan, too. Four people could split some of them, with leftovers remaining. Garrett ordered the chocolate motherlode cake ($7.95, a six-layer cake), and I ordered the "I delclair," a football-sized éclair smothered in chocolate sauce and whipped cream and placed on a bed of vanilla bean ice cream ($7.95). Garrett ate maybe a fifth of his sweet, moist cake; I ate an eighth or so of the yummy éclair. We carried the rest as we waddled home.

We returned for lunch on a recent Saturday, and found the exact same combination: a wait (estimated to be 10-15 minutes, but we only actually waited about five), fantastic service and so-so food. Garrett's half-sandwich and appetizer salad ($11.95) earned mixed reviews: Garrett loved the hearts of romaine salad (with bleu cheese, bacon bits, toasted walnuts and

herb balsamic vinaigrette), but was lukewarm on his bland cashew chicken sandwich (basically a chicken salad sandwich with curry mayo). He was happy with the on-the-side Thai slaw, though. I was split on my soup and appetizer salad ($11.95): The tomato, mozzarella and bleu stack was delectable, with juicy beefsteak tomato slices propping up the cheeses and vinaigrette dressing. But the baked potato cheddar soup was unremarkable and a bit bland.

And that's the Claim Jumper story in a nutshell: So-so food, freakish portions and probably at least a brief wait, with some of the best service in town making it all worthwhile. Some local restaurateurs may want to visit and take a few service-related notes.

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