Unexploited Niche

Firebirds may be geographically confused, but the folks there know how to grill up a top-notch steak

Time for a pop quiz!

1. Firebirds Rocky Mountain Grill's headquarters is located:

A. In Denver, Colo.
B. In Boise, Idaho.
C. In Charlotte, N.C.

2. The number of Firebirds restaurants, out of 11 total, located in or near the Rocky Mountains is:

A. 8
B. 4
C. Zero, seeing as there are Firebirds in the following states: Arizona, Alabama, Nebraska, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

3. Despite possible credibility issues with the name, Firebirds Rocky Mountain Grill is actually:

A. A nice restaurant with pretty good food.
B. One of the better restaurants located at La Encantada.
C. Worth checking out.

The answers are, respectively, C, C and all of the above. But you'd probably already figured that out. There are lessons to be learned here, about how restaurant corporations these days will pull any random concept out of an orifice and create a myth to build a restaurant around--and about how some restaurant chains are getting increasingly sophisticated at doing what they do, as more and more of them come galloping into ever-growing Tucson.

Here's how the Firebirds Web site describes the restaurant's vision: "There is an unexploited niche between an $18 check average and a $30 upscale check average. Our goal is to focus on that niche. Furthermore, our goal is to develop restaurant concepts that show sales growth and profitability while providing high quality food and service. We will place our concepts in proven locations such as 'suburban lifestyle' centers in metropolitan markets and 'open-air malls.'"

Revealing, eh? But what about the dining experience itself?

Garrett and I visited Firebirds for lunch on a recent weekend afternoon. The visit got off on the wrong foot--we were told we'd have to wait for a seat, even though there were a bevy of open tables. (If coverage is an issue, hire another damn server!) Fortunately, the wait was brief, and we were seated after only a few minutes.

Firebirds takes a page out of the Claim Jumper book when it comes to décor. It has an open kitchen and a high ceiling, and features a lot of wooden beams and logs--along with a taxidermied elk head. A wine-storage area in the main dining room looks like it's a converted fireplace.

The menu is heavy on "wood-fired steaks" and a number of "Rocky Mountain favorites," including chicken, ribs and a pork loin. The lunch menu also includes a half-dozen seafood and pasta dishes, and both lunch and dinner offer a nice selection of appetizers, salads and a wood-fired pizza of the day.

We ordered two appetizers, the roasted chicken quesadilla ($7.95) and the coconut jumbo shrimp ($7.95). I also chose a bowl of the chicken tortilla soup ($4.95) and a "signature" BLT salad ($5.25, $4.25 with an entrée). Garrett selected the French dip ($9.95) for his main meal, and I picked the buffalo meat loaf ($8.95).

An order of so-so sourdough bread--a bit undercooked and doughy in the middle--was delivered just before the soup and the appetizers. The quesadilla and the shrimp were pretty typical: The former featured rotisserie chicken, cheese, corn, black-bean salsa, cilantro tomato salsa and sour cream. It also had some wilted cilantro as a garnish. The coconut shrimp were fine, albeit a bit dry (aided nicely by the mango habanero chutney), but we were most impressed with the tasty accompanying tortilla slaw--slaw made with tortillas rather than cabbage. It was fantastic.

My soup was excellent. It wasn't much of a tortilla soup, per se--chips were merely a garnish--but the ample amounts of chicken in the cheesy liquid, finished off with pico de gallo and scallions, made for a tasty treat. My BLT salad--with iceberg and romaine lettuce topped with diced tomatoes, smoked bacon and a garlic ranch dressing--was also tasty, although Garrett thought it had too much dressing.

Our entrées were hit and miss. Garrett's French dip featured a nice bit of roast beef and pepper jack cheese, and he was happy that the au jus came in a large bowl big enough to dip in. His only complaint was that the baguette roll was a bit hard on his mouth. My meatloaf, however, was disappointing. The ground buffalo sirloin also included onions, garlic and fresh cracked black pepper, so said the menu, but I could not taste the garlic at all. The portobello gravy was decent, but the lack of flavor in the meat loaf itself was disappointing. The flavorful spiced pecan green beans, served on the side with "masked Yukon" gold potatoes, got my attention far more than the meat loaf did.

We left that lunch with mixed feelings about Firebirds. But our return dinner visit was damn near perfect. Like during our first meal, the service was excellent, and unlike during our first meal, each and every dish we ordered was a winner.

For starters, we got the crispy crab cakes ($8.95) and the lobster spinach queso ($8.95). My only criticism of the crab cakes, other than the fact that the Rocky Mountain region isn't known for its crab, was that there were merely two of them. Mixing crab with bell and poblano peppers, corn, bread crumbs, cilantro and lime, the cakes were nearly flawless. The habanero mango chutney, which we first experienced with the shrimp, was a hit again. The lobster spinach queso was absolutely delicious, I thought; Garrett said it was only OK.

We each got filets for our main courses: Garrett ordered a special, the blue cheese-crusted filet ($21.45), and I ordered the lobster tail and filet combo (market price; $35.95 on our visit). We both ordered our meats, smoked over hickory and oak, medium-rare, and they were both delivered as such. They both also came wrapped in bacon, which surprised Garrett (the specials menu didn't disclose this, an oversight that should be fixed). The cuts of meat themselves were tender, juicy and all-around fantastic. It was one of the best steaks I've had in Tucson. The lobster tail was perfectly cooked and delicious, too.

We were too full to sample the desserts, including crème brulee cheesecake ($6.25) and the Rocky Mountain peanut butter pie ($5.95). Next time.

There's a lesson worth learning from Firebirds: These restaurant chains know what they're doing, and they're doing it increasingly well. Yeah, the creation myth behind Firebirds appears preposterous and phony, but our dinner there was good enough to rival most mid-priced restaurants around town.

Local restaurants should take note: The chains are coming, and they're smarter and better than ever.

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