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Smoothly run chain restaurants succeed for many of the same reasons they’re so hateful. The food is reliably consistent but as predictable as a sitcom plot. The dining room is functional and distinctivean interactive company logo you can sit in. Waiters are generally polite and attentive, but they don’t so much answer questions as regurgitate ad copy on cue. Suburban-bred folks like myself who grow to become urban snobs tend to reject this sort of commercialism because it reflects a blandness we know too well.
It’s natural, then, that I find Canyon Cafe, a Dallas-based chain that has recently opened a branch in Friendship Heights, easy to ridicule. Like so many restaurants of its ilk, Canyon aims to transport its customers beyond the walls of the mall it inhabits to some faraway place. In this case, that place would be somewhere in the southwestern United States. The effect, of course, is laughably phony. The bricks and wood have been painstakingly chipped and eroded, absurdly suggesting that a sand storm has been blowing through the basement of Chevy Chase Pavilion. What’s supposed to look like the inside of a pueblo winds up reminding me of the Pottery Barn. Walking into the restaurant for the first timepast the flaming brazier outside the sidewalk entranceI apologize to my girlfriend for the lame meal I figure we’ll soon suffer through.
After we finish eating, however, I apologize for apologizing. The chicken chowder we share is satiny and energized with poblano peppers. And our entrees are hardly dull. Both the roasted half-chicken basted in jalapeño-and-garlic marinade and the chile-rubbed tuna steak are fleshy and juicy, perfect in a way that suggests that their recipes have been honed through endless trial-and-error. Even the free white-chocolate tamales are inspired. “Are you sure this is a chain?” my date asks.
There are certainly some noble reasons why a single restaurant multiplies into a full-fledged chain. Foremost among them, obviously, is a menu filled with workable recipes that are as easy to sell as they are to teach to teams of rookie cooks. Canyon, which is owned by a married couple, not a corporate behemoth, has just such a menu. But where so much Southwestern cuisine can be harsh and fatty, Canyon’s food is subtle without being wimpy.
Several of the offerings draw on ideas outside the range of Canyon’s signature cuisine. Even at upscale Southwestern restaurants, fusion dishes are frequently misfires, and this is the case with Canyon’s pastas. Hot peppers don’t mix well with non-Asian noodles, and Canyon’s pastas are so busy with overbearing spices that no one of them is able to do its job.
The mix-and-match works better in the appetizers. Flour tortillas are the shells for Canyon’s spring rolls, although the real twist is provided by a chipotle barbecue sauce, a sort of sugary salsa that’s good enough to eat with a spoon. Saucewise, the mushroom casserole has it alladovo sauce, pico de gallo, queso blanco, salsa on the side. On paper, it looks like overload, but the ‘shrooms serve as filters, each of them dripping flavor. I’m initially skeptical of the goat cheese in the Southwest special quesadilla, but Canyon uses a mild strain that blends well with the dish’s cilantro, corn, and roasted sweet peppers. If you’re in the mood to cry, order the topless empanada; eating the mixture of red chile sauce and veggie compote that fills this flaky pastry may be to the closest you’ll ever come to tasting lava.
Canyon’s salads and tacos are generous, big enough to share, but they’re notable for their small touchesthe fresh seafood in the Baja tacos, for example, or the toasted capers sprinkled on top of the Caesar salad. But Canyon’s chief virtues are exhibited in the preparation of its entrees.
Finely executed and affordable Southwestern cuisine is notoriously hard to get outside its native region. Just ask a Texan. Canyon isn’t going to attract the hard-core crowd mainly because that’s not the one it’s aiming for. But there’s no denying that there’s someone in the kitchen who understands peppers. No two entrees at Canyon employ peppers the same way. Despite their reputation, hot peppers are full of nuances that can only be tapped with care. The Southwest pot roast gets its heat from a thin, pepper-spiked gravy, a richer, creamier version of which comes over the chicken-fried steak. It doesn’t take much to ignite seafood, so the shrimp and tuna are rubbed with red chile, not submerged in it. The chicken piccata is flavored with roasted pepper-and-tomato sauce and a splash of lemon-and-cilantro butter. I do wish the endless quest for variety had ended before someone came up with the barbecue corn-husk salmon and the chipotle mango chicken. But I guess if you order enough, you’re bound to get something that sucks. After all, this is a chain.
Since residents of Friendship Heights pay D.C. taxes, the area’s technically not a suburbalthough you’d never know it from walking the streets around Canyon. One friend who lives close to the restaurant complains, “Nothing ever happens here.” Aside from shopping and movies, he’s right. But at least now there’s a decent place to stop for a bite.
Canyon Cafe, 5345 Wisconsin Ave. NW. (202) 364-0700.
Visually speaking, North Carolina-style barbecue is a pale breed. N.C. grillers shun deep red sauces in favor of a vigorous dry-rub, claiming it brings out the best in pork and beef. While Levi’s BBQ claims to practice the style, only its pulled pork sandwich is the real deal. Served on a toasted bun and topped with coleslaw, the sandwich’s colorless innards, just to look at them, could easily be mistaken for canned tuna fish. But the chopped pork is tangy with vinegar, hot with peppers, and best eaten with a side of the house mac-and-cheese. Barbecue isn’t the only thing on the menu at Levi’s, much to the delight of one reader who works at the nearby BET headquarters. “I can eat there everyday,” she says, “and it beats Burger King.” Which, coincidentally, is exactly what the restaurant used to be before Levi’s took over.
Levi’s BBQ, 1233 Brentwood Rd. NE. (202) 635-3991.Brett Anderson
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