Filler Elegant Rush

Dakota Café Is A Great Place To Eat--Especially If You're Speedy.
By Rebecca Cook

OUT ON EAST Tanque Verde Road lies an assortment of prefab storefronts and buildings called Trail Dust Town that purport to evoke the spirit of the Old West, a piece of Tucson's glorious past.

Chow While strolling the boardwalk of this simulated blip in history you can consider posing--in period garb, of course--for an old-time, sepia-tinted photo, riding the carousel, sitting in the gazebo or indulging in profligate quantities of red meat at Pinnacle Peak steak house.

Everything here is designed to transport you to another era.

But, while the facade of the Dakota Café may look just as 19th-century as the rest of the place, there's nothing retro about the edibles produced within. They're chic and nouvelle all the way. I'm quite sure the vittles served up in the Sonoran desert in 1880 never tasted like this.

For a mild spring day, lunch on the Dakota's patio is recommended. Amongst the lacy, white wrought-iron furniture you can enjoy soups, salads, sandwiches, pastas and fresh fish, all prepared in new and surprising ways.

Dakota's chilled sea scallop salad is nothing less than magnificent, with red chili-coated scallops so large, tender and fresh I would have sworn I was within a sea breeze of the ocean. Served with mixed field greens, papaya, roasted pecans, gorgonzola cheese and a tangy orange vinaigrette, every bite was sheer bliss.

My friend Ona chose to sample the Dakota Club sandwich and, being a committed vegetarian, was delighted to find many of Dakota's menu items, if not already meatless, could be prepared that way.

Thus, the sliced turkey and hickory-smoked bacon usually found on the sandwich were eliminated without comment and the remaining ingredients of dill havarti cheese, sliced tomato, lettuce, lime guacamole and mayonnaise, between thick slices of homemade grain bread, served a satisfactory substitute.

Also intriguing on the lunch menu was a grilled ahi tuna, fish tacos made with cabrilla, the fresh fish of the day, and the spinach-melt sandwich, a sautéed blend of Popeye's favorite food along with water chestnuts, mushrooms, sliced tomato and dill havarti cheese served on sourdough bread.

For dessert, I had the lime pie, a slight variation on the more well-known key lime pastry. The filling, encased in a sweet shortbread-type crust, was slightly tart with a flavor reminiscent of the islands.

The service at lunch was relaxed but efficient, with everything arriving at the table in a timely fashion.

Altogether, a grand way to pass an afternoon.

Image Dinner at Dakota Café, however, is an entirely different matter. The food is still delicious, but the leisurely grace enjoyed earlier in the day has been replaced with the frenetic pace of a real dinner rush.

In addition to the quality of the food, what ranks a restaurant in my mind is the service. Ideally being neither too fast nor too slow, too absent nor too in-your-face, good service can make or break a dining experience.

On a recent Saturday evening, no doubt the Dakota's peak dining time, I found the service stumbled into a few well-worn traps.

Drink orders, taken shortly after we were seated, took forever to arrive. An appetizer was interrupted halfway through to make room for our entrees. A second drink order was completely forgotten. And the bill was plopped on the table before I'd even finished the main course, without even a polite query as to whether I'd like to take the meal to its logical conclusion with dessert.

Granted, the place was hopping, with more and more diners piling up outside the door with each passing moment. Nevertheless, with food this good, diners simply cannot--and should not--be rushed.

An appetizer of pizza foccacia with grilled eggplant, feta, Swiss and parmesan cheeses, caramelized onions, sun-dried tomatoes and fresh basil was exquisite and, along with a small salad, would have made a tasty meal in itself.

A few daily specials are always offered at Dakota and, although tempted by that day's pork chops with bourbon and molasses sauce, both my dining companion and I opted for pasta dishes.

The bow-tie pasta with chunks of grilled chicken breast, fresh basil, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, onions and loads of garlic was heavenly. My companion's angel hair pasta with eggplant, onions, fresh and sun-dried tomatoes, yellow squash, parsley and garlic was also good, although the vegetables might have been just a bit overcooked.

Lest beef lovers despair that the fare at Dakota is just too chichi, rest assured your predilection has not been forgotten. A sautéed beef tenderloin served with a dijonnaise, brandy and peppercorn cream sauce looked scrumptious.

A simple and elegant caramel flan (yes, I did insist on dessert) was an ideal way to end a rather hurried meal.

Excellent food and a prime location make Dakota Café a popular eating establishment. While I'm glad for their success, I hope the Dakota can slow things down a bit at dinner. Hurrying an outstanding meal is a disservice to the cuisine and the customers.

Dakota Café & Catering Co. 6541 E. Tanque Verde Road. 298-7188. Open 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sundays. Full bar. V, TW

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