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RESTAURANT REVIEW

Visual Effects

Despite sizable portions, food fails to equal pretentious Southwest decor.

November 05, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The ancient Native American character Kokopeli--the dancing flute guy you see on Pueblo pottery and jewelry--shows up on the cover of Canyon Cafe's menu. According to Pueblo legend, Kokopeli brought fertility to the land, but this grandiose restaurant on the upper level of the impressive new Glendale Marketplace could use a little magic itself.

The place does make a firm visual statement. The interior is heavy on raw stone, unfinished wood and the pastel shades we associate with the Southwest. Giant wooden spokes protrude above the snazzy open bar.

But in this context--Glendale is the Texas-based Canyon Cafe chain's 19th location--the decor comes across as self-conscious and overdone. Every imaginable nook and cranny has Southwest pretensions, from the wicker napkin baskets to the earth-toned service plates. Rusted farm implements hang above many of the booths. I probably wouldn't grumble about these contrivances if Canyon Cafe's kitchen payed similar homage to down-home Southwest cooking. But it doesn't.

Getting enough to eat, however, won't be a problem. Like many successful concept restaurants targeting families, Canyon Cafe's calling card is outsize portions at reasonable prices. And things get off to a good start when the waiter brings you a colorful jar filled with deliciously chewy bread sticks and a dish of salsa-infused cream cheese to spread on them.

The Southwest pot roast features the biggest chunk of meat I have ever seen in a restaurant, along with a veritable mountain of chile-spiked mashed potatoes and a huge ear of grilled corn on the cob. Similarly, my roast chicken must have had a hyperactive pituitary. It was quite good, basted in a subtly spicy jalapen~o marinade, but I was glad only half of it was my share.

These giant entrees happen to be two of the restaurant's better dishes, though neither invokes the Southwest to any great extent. The south Texas tortilla soup isn't bad either. It's a nicely smoky tomato soup with tortilla strips angling out of the bowl, and it might be terrific with a little cumin added.

But bold spicing would be out of character for this kitchen. Poblano chicken chowder doesn't exhibit any of the advertised poblano chile flavor; it's just a dreadfully bland bowl of white paste. An appetizer called Tumblewheat chicken is chicken tenders in what appears to be some kind of shredded wheat breading. My portion was as dry as a rolling tumbleweed.

Adovo chicken pasta is penne with grilled chicken strips and a roasted pepper cream sauce. It has nice flavor, though the thick sauce gets tiresome. BBQ cornhusk salmon is a nice flame-grilled piece of fish basted with a cloyingly sweet sauce. The sauce is said to contain chipotle chiles, but the playfully smoky chipotle flavor is notably absent.

Tudie's chicken-fried tuna is fine when you scrape off the thick breading and omit the jalapen~o cream gravy, a close cousin to that pasty chicken chowder. Perhaps the best entree is carne asada, a great grilled steak topped with peppers and onions. It doesn't help that most of these entrees come with a tired rice pilaf and under-seasoned black beans, but, for the record, the chile mashed potatoes, which accompany some entrees, are quite good.

The desserts, by contrast, are uniformly fine. The best is an impossibly rich chocolate truffle pie--really a deep, dark wedge that's almost pure fudge. Deep-fried banana burritos come drizzled with hot caramel and chocolate sauces, a nice treat. The cinnamon and sugar bun~uelo is an open-face fried pastry filled with small scoops of vanilla ice cream, kid food that adults will enjoy too.

Kokopeli, it appears, is a big dessert eater.

BE THERE

Canyon Cafe, 146 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Full bar. Validated parking in structure. All major cards. Dinner for two, $28-$45. Suggested dishes: South Texas tortilla soup, $2.99/cup-$4.29/bowl; Southwest pot roast, $13.29; carne asada, $16.49; chocolate truffle pie, $4.95. Call (818) 547-9950.

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