Old Pueblo Panache 

With The Addition Of Old Pueblo Grille, Restaurant Impresario Bob McMahon Is Dressed To The Nines.

I THINK I'VE discovered the secret to Bob McMahon's phenomenal success as a local restaurateur: consistency and quality. Each of McMahon's nine restaurants offers something a little different, but these standards assure diners an unwavering value at any of them.

Therefore, the minute Old Pueblo Grille opened its doors, a ready-made clientele bustled in full of anticipation and expectations. They were not disappointed.

The latest addition to the McMahon-Metro Restaurant empire (which also includes City Grill, Metropolitan Grill, Firecracker, Keaton's, McMahon's Prime Steak House, Bob's, Coyote Grill in Green Valley and, most recently, the Tack Room) has slipped seamlessly into the building formerly occupied by the Cottonwood Café and the Lunt Avenue Marble Club. Although there have been slight modifications to the design of the space (most notably, the transfer of the front bar to an enclosed area toward the rear of the building, and an expanded outdoor patio), the restaurant exudes the same Santa Fe-style warmth and charm present in earlier incarnations.

Open for both lunch and dinner, Old Pueblo Grill specializes in regional Southwestern cuisine, with "an emphasis on flavor rather than on food that is hot and spicy," our server informed us. Although we happen to like hot and spicy cuisine, we admired the remarkable variety of dishes the menu presented.

As we glanced over the selections, we immediately noticed a separate margarita menu and an exhaustive listing of 101 kinds of tequila, ranging in price from $4 to $50. For those unfamiliar with top-quality sipping tequilas, I assure you it's a rare treat. On our next visit, we'll forego dinner in favor of agave and appetizers.

Warm bread sticks and slices of pumpkin bread are delivered to each table along with the menus. Both were ideal for abating our hunger as we contemplated the menu.

The extensive menu includes a printed insert of at least a half-dozen specials reflecting available ingredients and the chef's creative whims. One of the specials was an appetizer of jalapeño, corn and shrimp fritters ($6.95): four golden orbs in a cloak of red chile sauce. Comprised of the aforementioned ingredients and a generous handful of jack cheese, the fritters were crunchy on the outside and gooey and pudding-like at the center. The unusual textural combination worked well in blending the flavors. The red chile roux was similar to a mild enchilada sauce, and benefited from a dash or two of fiery hot sauce.

In addition to a comprehensive menu featuring beef, chicken, fish and pork, Old Pueblo Grille offers a special children's menu for underage company. The menu includes such standards as burgers and fried shrimp, but also features more regional fare, such as the shredded beef soft tacos with charro beans ($3.95) that our young companion ordered. Filled with shredded lettuce, tomatoes and grated cheddar cheese, the tacos were easily rolled into neat, savory mouthfuls. The charro beans -- whole pintos simmering in a chili-infused sauce -- registered a spice level perfectly suited to developing palates.

Equally satisfying was a pair of grown-up dishes from both land and sea. The Sonoran filet medallions ($15.95) consisted of two spheres of buttery beef tenderloins served with a piquant and faintly sweet ancho tequila sauce, creamy poblano mashed potatoes, charro beans, and a sautéed medley of zucchini, yellow squash and red bell pepper. As requested, the meat was grilled to a perfect medium rare, and the side dishes complemented it beautifully. Although no soup or salad accompanies entrees at Old Pueblo Grille, the ample portions make them unnecessary.

Another of the evening's specials, a green chile-crusted halibut served with a cilantro-lime beurre blanc sauce and black bean and mango salsa ($13.95), was superb. The crust provided the fresh, flaky fish with a delightful crunch, and the accompanying condiments infused the mild fillet with sweet, tangy and savory nuances. The vegetable medley and seasoned rice completed the platter.

All of Old Pueblo Grille's desserts are made in-house, and the brief list ranges from chocolate to fresh fruit. The fried bananas served with chocolate dipping sauce and sweet chile-pecan ice cream ($4.95) sounded intriguing, but our palates balked at the offbeat combination of flavors.

"It's kind of like Arthur Treacher does dessert," my companion mused as he cut into a heavily breaded, hot banana cube. The accompanying ice cream, on the other hand, was sensational, so loaded with chopped pecans that every bite requires concentrated chewing.

An outstanding kahlua crème brûlée ($4.95) exuded the coffee liqueur in sweet, silky tones. We'll sample the chocolate mousse and caramelized fruit tart on the next visit, along with some of the tequilas.

Service at Old Pueblo Grille is blessedly timely and efficient, and our server was exceptionally informed about every aspect of the menu. It was a pleasure to be in such knowledgeable and capable hands.

If there's a chink in Bob McMahon's armor, Old Pueblo Grille certainly isn't it. Chalk up another win for Metro Restaurants.

Old Pueblo Grille. 60 N. Alvernon Way. 326-6000. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Full bar. All major credit cards. Menu items: $2.95-$15.95.

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