Characterless Cantina

Gringo Grill has a lot of work to do before our critic can recommend it

The people who run Gringo Grill & Cantina had better crank it up a notch if they want customers to return.

After our first of two meals there we were left wondering how any business could get everything so wrong (although things were better on our second visit).

The general takeaway from our first dining experience—which cost almost $100 for the two of us—was that it was one of the worst we'd had in all the years we've been dining together.

Gringo (even the name is a bit of a turn-off) is in the La Posada Suites & Casitas complex on North Oracle, in the space where Miguel's was for many years.

Once seated, we waited a full 10 minutes before anyone acknowledged us, and that was only because we asked for water.

When our server finally showed up she didn't seem very connected to her job. I got the feeling that it was either her first server job, or that she'd had minimal training, or both.

The service issues were a series of little things that taken together indicated bigger problems. For instance, our appetizers arrived before our drinks from the bar. When we asked what the two empty glasses on our table were for, we found out they were for the complimentary aguas frescas that are supposed to be served to everyone. We got ours, but only after asking. And a diner at another table had to get more tortilla chips herself.

Our calamari appetizer ($9) was OK, and wasn't hot enough. Served in a nifty little basket with a side of so-so marinara sauce, it arrived at the table five minutes before the cocktails. I ignored the puddles of grease on the paper that lined the basket.

The short ribs with chipotle sauce ($24) were supposed to have a 48-hour braise, which means the meat should be fork-tender, with deep, rich flavors and a dark mahogany color. Alas, these were anything but. To start with, the food was lukewarm. Even the flavor-challenged chipotle sauce was cool. And it seemed like the two ribs had been grilled rather than braised because the meat was rare and had a steaklike texture. In fact, I had to ask for a steak knife to cut it. At $24, I want what the menu says I should get, and this was definitely not what was promised.

The pork ribs ($10 half rack; $18 full rack) fared no better. We were supposed to be given the option of dry rub or barbecue sauce, but weren't. They came with the dry rub, which was a nice idea, but the ribs were extremely fatty and difficult to cut and chew. A knob of bones at the top made the steak knife useless. The hand-cut fries were a disappointment, but then (forgive me if I'm repeating myself ) most restaurant fries are these days.

The cassoulet (a side option with the short ribs) seemed out of place in a restaurant named Gringo, but it turned out to be the best thing we ate all night. White beans and a variety of meats all came together in a savory stew.

The desserts also missed the mark. A tiny portion of chocolate flan ($7) was served in an oversized bowl, making it look smaller than it already was. The gray color was unappetizing and the strawberries had the taste of frozen berries. The flan was supposedly made with Ibarra chocolate but the texture was near chalky and the chocolate flavor nonexistent.

The tres leches cake ($7) was nothing more than dry, yellow cake sitting in a puddle of milk and topped with whipped cream. Even one of our cocktails (Ketel One with soda, $8.75) had problems. We deemed it one of the worst cocktails ever.

But when we returned for our second meal, an early dinner, we had a much better experience. This time, we were greeted by a charming young woman who ended up being our server. She told us her name, gave us menus, asked us if we wanted anything from the bar and proceeded to pour the aguas frescas. That day's version had pineapple, basil and mint.

Our food came in a timely manner and at the proper temperature. We sampled the summer tortilla soup ($5 cup; $8 bowl); the Sonoran burger ($13) and the Whole Enchilada ($15).

The broth was a bit bland and the soup was overpowered by a huge amount of chiles. It also could have used more tortilla strips. I love tortilla soup and am a bit fussy about it, so it was a disappointment.

But the burger was nicely presented: a perfectly charred patty on a buttery bun pierced with a huge toothpick that held together a thick pickle slice, a red pepper slice and an olive. The patty was topped with mesquite bacon, shaved onions, cured tomatoes, beans and jalapeño jam. The fries weren't much better than on our previous meal, but the burger more than made up for that.

The enchiladas were also pretty good and the presentation was pretty. While the "dirty rice" on the side was more like a risotto, all the elements came together nicely. The sauce was smooth and the shredded chicken was tender. The cheese that topped half of the dish had melted nicely and added a mellow flavor.

We opted for the locally sourced fig bread pudding ($7) for dessert. It came with a cream cheese gelato and was served warm, and was quite good. There was a gooey sweetness to the generous portion. When we asked if the gelato was made in-house, the server told us that it wasn't, but was made locally.

I doubt I'll return to Gringo. This town has too many other places with similar prices but better food and service.

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