Mall Food, 2003-Style

Metro Grill at Park Place's chic, upscale vibe help make this renovated mall a happening place.

About 50 years ago, the automobile started changing the way the American city evolved. Suburbs, commutes and gas-guzzling vehicles--especially in the West--moved people out of downtown and into the more far-reaching areas of urban communities.

That's why so many American downtowns--Tucson being no exception--are struggling. Conversely, urban sprawl is skyrocketing. But even with things spread out, folks still need a place to shop and socialize--hence the advent of the American mall.

Massive parking lots, tons of stores and food--they've been staples of the mall during the last several decades.

Back in the day, mall food was served at either working-class (i.e. Woolworth's diners) or high-class (i.e. the ritzy restaurants at upscale department stores) joints. Then came the food courts we all know and tolerate. And at the newly renovated Park Place mall on the city's eastside, there are now two trendy--and often packed--restaurants that find a happy middle ground between the classic Woolworth's diner and the department store café.

One is the Bamboo Club, which this newspaper reviewed positively last year. The other is the Metro Grill at Park Place, which had been the newest member of the locally owned Metro Restaurants restaurant empire until Smokin' opened at Orange Grove and Oracle roads about a week ago.

My parents and I visited the Metro Grill on a recent Friday evening. Mom and Dad were making their first visit to Tucson, and I hoped a good meal at the Metro Grill would set a positive tone for their visit. Thankfully, that's just what happened.

We made reservations, and it was a good thing; otherwise there would have been a long wait. Park Place has become quite the popular place to congregate, especially on weekend nights, when the adjacent Century Park Place 20 seemingly draws in everyone within a 20-mile radius. (OK, I exaggerate, but trying to find a parking place at Park Place on a Friday night can lead a person to such conclusions.)

We were seated and promptly greeted by our server, who took our drink order. The décor is quite trendy--wall sconces, wooden tables and modern art complement the urban-chic feel of the place. (After all, it is called the Metro Grill.)

For starters, we ordered the appetizer sampler (a bit pricey at $14.99), consisting of guacamole and chips, firecracker shrimp, mozzarella sticks and that Metro Restaurants staple--rattlesnake eggs (jalapeños stuffed with shrimp and cheese, and then wrapped in bacon). The guacamole, chips and mozzarella sticks were pretty standard, and the shrimp were merely OK. (The batter was relatively tasteless and the accompanying spicy sauce was in minute quantity.) However, the rattlesnake eggs were excellent--the tastes complemented each other nicely.

My dad, being a huge steak fan, ordered the filet mignon with béarnaise sauce ($17.99). My mom, being a big seafood fan, ordered the grilled shrimp skewers ($13.99). Having inherited both a love of steak and a love of seafood from my folks, I ordered the surf and turf, featuring a top sirloin and some of the aforementioned shrimp ($14.99). The expansive menu also features sandwiches, salads, pastas and various other entrees, in addition to a Saturday/Sunday breakfast menu.

We chatted and people-watched as the sun gradually set, enjoying the lively atmosphere. Our servers made sure our drink needs were met and that we had enough bread. (French and zucchini breads are served.)

When the meals came, we were not disappointed. My father loved his perfectly-cooked filet. It was a flawless piece of meat. I, personally, have had better béarnaise sauce--this version came off as bland to me--but Dad was quite happy. My mom was also thrilled with her shrimp, medium-sized nuggets coated with soy and honey. As for me, I enjoyed my shrimp and my top sirloin immensely. We all enjoyed wonderfully prepared mashed potatoes, but we all found our vegetables--predominantly carrots mixed in with a few other veggies--to be almost completely devoid of flavor.

Despite that minor flaw, we were all quite satisfied and nearly stuffed to the point of medical problems. However, being the professional reviewer that I am, I pressed forward to try their dessert special, a blueberry cheesecake ($5.50). I was surprised when it arrived with a purplish color--blueberries were obviously used in its preparation, although it was surrounded on the plate in a pool of blueberries and sauce, too. It was delicious--even if I could stomach only a bite or two before I had to stop.

All in all, it was a fine dining experience. We then wandered the mall, dodging the numerous folks on the way to their movies, before hopping in my car and darting off to my suburban apartment. For better or for worse, it was a perfectly typical modern evening at the American mall--and an enjoyable one at that.

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