Whatta concept!

At theme-choked Canyon Cafe, a few things actually rise above the kitsch

Over the last few years, regional cuisine has evolved beyond mere food. Today, the focus is less about what's on the plate and more on "theme." A cuisine is developed, primped, tweaked, tested, and cross-dressed with other regionally influenced grub until it becomes the basis for a restaurant concept. Then the theme is heavily marketed via well-greased PR machinery that packages it in words like "concept," "innovative," "fusion," and "distinctive," while layering on meaningless statistics such as "our executive staff represents over 100 years of combined industry experience" to glaze it with credibility. (Hell, Burger King probably has more than a million years of combined food industry experience among its management staff, but that doesn't make their Whoppers any more digestible.)

Cajun food is an illustration of this process. Emerging as a highly specific cuisine centered in Louisiana, the food received national attention as a hot, eclectic culinary style. Other chefs around the country quickly picked up on its distinct zip and folded some of its elements, such as blackening, into their menus. From there it graduated to the "hot" concept stage, and chains grasped it as a new marketing tool. Now everything is blackened, and Cajun-spiced this and that is everywhere.

Launched by Sam's Cafe founder Jack Baum, Dallas-based Canyon Cafe, a small chain, is swimming in the "hot" concept phase of this evolutionary progression. And it's evident from their corporate propaganda that they are having a hard time keeping their heads above the slurry of concept babble. "We started with Sam's Cafe in Dallas in 1989, and we are excited to see it evolve into our award-winning Canyon Cafe concept," a press release quotes Baum as uttering. Then there's this: "The combination of a red-hot management team and a unique, southwest-of-anyplace-else menu earned Canyon Cafe the honor of being named one of the country's most exciting concepts in 1997..." I asked corporate executive chef Travis Henderson what exactly this award-winning concept was, and specifically, what "southwest-of-anyplace-else" meant.

"It's kind of hard to define what a Southwestern restaurant is," he explains. "We're kind of making our own niche as we go along. And it's basically a confluence of different kinds of cooking...We try to pull from old traditional Mexican cooking as well as New Mexican Sonoran style and then incorporate a little Native American with a little Texas in there as well...we try to incorporate those items into fairly comfortable foods...but we jazz it up a little bit to make it something a little out of the ordinary." Clear as chipotle sauce.

Then there's this cogent press release quote from none other than Henderson himself: "We are pioneering uncharted terrain between avant-garde Southwestern and Native American cuisine. The menu reflects a twist between old and new..." When I asked him how all these abstractions translate into a plate of food, he responded: "That's a good question. Well, hopefully that with our new menu creativity, that being some things you haven't seen before coming in, and pairing them with some of the older style dishes, like with pork chops and pot roast and things of that nature." President Bush couldn't have said it better.

The press packet makes several references to this elusive Native American influence. Yet there is no clear indication as to its manifestation or how it shapes the menu. "We tend to put fresh grilled products, instead of prepackaged things...on the menu, corn being one," answers Henderson. According to these criteria, my high school cafeteria had Native American influences too. Especially on fresh-fish Friday.

As you may have guessed by now, I'm not one who passionately embraces venues absorbed in themes and contrivances. This is not to say there aren't fine thematic restaurants featuring regional cuisine, of which Rooster is one example. But this clouded Canyon kitsch is a little too much restaurateuring by way of concepts and buzz words for my taste. Yet what's truly amazing in light of all of this muddled focus is that the whole concept doesn't completely collapse under the weight of its thematic load. In fact, some of the menu actually works quite well.

The first thing you'll notice as you move from the parking lot to the entrance of this hip pueblo by the tollway is a pair of what Canyon Cafe calls its "mammoth signature torches," sort of like a pair of rusty woks on elaborate light pole pedestals that have been lit up with Molotov cocktails. Upon entering this roundish restaurant, you'll see "softly troweled" walls in rich mauve hues and putty tones cluttered with scores of "authentic" New Mexican and Native American artifacts--battered shutters, assorted baskets, pots and plates, even a dug-out canoe. It's arranged with the same thematic sensibility applied to 1980s fern bars when the walls were crusted with old stop lights, rusty license plates, antique telephones, beer signs, Dodge Dart hub caps, and prehistoric bicycles. Other touches include sections of wall created with Arizona sandstone and a sunken, canopied gazebo-like contraption in the center of the restaurant constructed of hand-stripped ponderosa pine timbers.

The semi-circular bar has an arc of these timbers near the ceiling, fanning out into the restaurant like a series of rimless spokes. In the center of that gazebo is a water-filled stone well with a network of gas jets breaking the surface, flaming up into a huge pounded copper dome chimney vent--firewater as thematic high drama.

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