Camp fire

The Southwesternization of Northgate.

Camp fire

COPPER SKY WOODFIRE GRILL AND BAR 550 N.E. Northgate Way, 363-9911 lunch and dinner seven days a week

THE NORTHGATE neighborhood strikes terror in the hearts of urbanites. There’s the mall, of course, with its weird tiki hut/longhouse remodel; the Target, with its Death Star presence casting a long, long shadow; the soon-to-be-demolished movie house; the ghost of buried Thornton Creek, continuing to haunt developers and city officials. But seek and ye shall find, oh, lost souls of Seattle. Across from three mattress warehouses and just west of Discount Tire lurks some decent food in the sort of atmosphere that won’t scare your Iowa-based family and won’t drive you to imbibing more than your share of novelty cocktails in search of peace. Formerly known as “The Sizzler” and “Krazy Bird,” the building is now home to Copper Sky Woodfire Grill and Bar, the jewel in the Red Robin crown.

Copper Sky offers two advantages that should be universally appreciated: a vast plain of free parking and no need for reservations. It’s also smoke-free (which could go either way with the Iowans). The mix of comfy booths and larger tables provides options for tired couples and larger parties, while the roomy bar offers a happily kid-free zone. A couple of fireplaces and the open wood-fired grill (which the servers mention in every other sentence) make it all warm and cozy—you might even like the “authentically Western” touches like randomly placed cowgirl boots, antler-based chandeliers, and the Navajo-print polyester upholstery.

Start with the drinks—and get to it quickly, as your complete sweetie pie of a waitress will arrive as soon as you sit down, offering you something from the Margarita Bar. Top shelf here is Herradura ($7.95), and the drinks are stiff and somewhat clumsily served—overfull and not mixed thoroughly, so the first sip seems to be pure Anejo (not that we’re complaining). The frozen version is freshly extracted from its prominently placed Slurpee machine. You may also enjoy a visit to Martini Island. While this collection is served in a traditional martini glass, they, too, seem sloppy; it’s hard to feel sophisticated when your hands are all sticky. Those seeking escape should get immediately in the eye of the notorious Hurricane ($7.25); red and fruity, this drink kicks the ass of Punchy the Hawaiian Punch guy and will have you eerily calm even before the appetizers arrive.

ALL THE FOOD displays two consistent traits: First, an earnest, if sometimes poorly executed, Southwesternization; second, the striped brand of the aforementioned wood-fired grill. Assured that the Texas egg rolls were a popular appetizer, we requested a plate to go with our Martini Island vacation. The exterior was an unusual hybrid of egg-roll-wrapper and tortilla, fried up around a filling of corn, black beans, spicy chicken, and jack cheese. A bowl of fresh (but boring) salsa was planted in the middle of the plate, which was decorated with squeeze-bottle drippings of a tasteless pesto cream and a fantastic cumin-spiced sour cream. Not authentic, embarrassingly unhealthy, and damned tasty.

No matter what you order for dinner, odds are it’ll be grilled. Rodeo chicken ($15.75) is more chicken than rodeo, unless those cutlets really were barrel racing around the mashed potatoes. The platter included a mound of still-crisp vegetables, crunchy fried onions, a generous scoop of chunky mashed baby reds, and three flattened and grilled boneless breasts. The chicken itself was the only disappointment; it was cooked just right and thus still juicy, but bland to the point of tastelessness. The Austin steak (New York strip, $18.95) comes with the same lovely side dishes, and the meat was pleasantly spicy and nicely tender. The fajita chicken and steak combo ($18.95) has a few interesting things going for it: coconut rice, tender, delicious black beans, and jerk-seasoned meat. The rice and meat were almost too sweet on their own, but paired with the beans and salsa it added up to an original, satisfying combination. When most of the enormous (what IS it with portion size these days?) platter was wrapped up to take home, Sweetie Pie Waitress included a fresh set of tortillas.

To focus on Sweetie Pie for a moment: Copper Sky must either overpay its staff or have the best training program the world has ever seen. Yes, you can tell a corporation owns it, but that isn’t always a bad thing. The staff gives a very sincere appearance of liking each other and their jobs. The manager circled no less than four times throughout dinner, clearing plates, chatting, and generally helping out her employees. As a result, water glasses were never empty, food arrived correctly and promptly, and everyone asked specific questions about our meal to make sure we were happy—amazingly, without hovering or giving any attitude. As a very poor reward for this delightful service, I recommend going there with tired kids, demanding parents, and after a bad day at work. You will be treated like royalty (and should accordingly leave a large pile of gold as a tip).

Dessert was less satisfying. Dollar ninety-five hot fudge sundaes for the kids are a fun and sticky option; adults get the shaft by comparison, with a gelatinous Key lime pie ($5.95), microwaved bread pudding ($6.45), and slightly bitter chocolate pecan pie ($5.95). Fake whipped cream was overly sweet; while the pecan pie needed the lift, the unpleasantly eggy Key lime wasn’t helped at all. The best part was the vanilla bean ice cream on the bread pudding—with the warm cinnamon sauce, it was easy to ignore the chewy, raisin-filled bread.

Sooner or later, everyone ends up at the mall. When you’ve finished your shopping and have driven your blood sugar to a new low, ignore the food court and head down the street. You can put your aching feet up, get some T.L.C. from Sweetie Pie, and relax for a while on Martini Island.

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