Wednesday, March 10, 2010 | 12:55 p.m.
Off the Strip is not the sort of place prickly critics get excited about. The food is unchallenging to a fault — skewing heavily towards Italian — and is filled with cliché after cliché lifted straight from the Macaroni Grill/Maggiano's playbook.
So why is it the No. 1-rated local restaurant on Yelp.com? Because, I surmise, Americans can't get enough of fried calamari, Caesar salads, chicken wings and pasta in all its guises. And once they've had their fill of those, they will still line up for chicken Parmigiana, meatballs and shrimp scampi — not to mention a selection of steaks and chops.
The other reason this cozy (45-seat) joint packs them in: As overfamiliar as this food may be, it is being freshly prepared by people who take real pride in what they're serving. Those same folks — chef Al Hubbard and owner Tom Goldsbury — seem to sincerely care about their customers, and also seem to know half of them by name. Combine that with being about the only decent restaurant in this neck of the woods (far south on I-15, adjacent to Southern Highlands), and you have a recipe for success that shows no sign of abating.
To many locals, restaurants on the Strip represent cutting-edge (read: small portion/big price) cuisine that isn't worth the time, the cost or the pretension. In contrast, Off The Strip and its ilk are happy to prepare the same old, generously portioned, sauce-heavy stuff that fits American eating sensibilities like a pair of 48-inch Sansabelt pants. Nowhere is this more evident than in some of the appetizers, which seem conceived with a Todd English-like too much is not enough philosophy in mind.
Order the sweet chili and bacon prawns and you'll get good, sweet, jumbo shrimp, wrapped in bacon (with a dash of cream cheese!), cooked perfectly, then drenched (and we mean drenched) in about a cup and a half of sweet/hot Thai chili sauce. If a multitude of ingredients and flavors are your bag, you will find it hard to fault any dish that combines seafood, pork, cheese, sauce and Asian spices. But those looking for a little more subtlety with their seafood will be disappointed. Equally odd are mussels oreganata — coated with oregano-scented panko crumbs, baked and served with a cherry-pepper beurre blanc (butter sauce). The bivalves are perfectly cooked (again) but delivered to your table swimming in the sauce, and then topped with yet another, bright, white cheesy emulsion that subtracts, by addition, from the equation.
On the brighter, lighter side, the fried calamari are lightly dredged in seasoned flour, quite tender, and served with a serious fra diavolo (spicy marinara) sauce. Equally good are the grilled artichoke hearts — spectacular in their simplicity. But things return to form with the pork roulade — rolled, pounded pig stuffed with mushrooms, roasted peppers, two cheeses (Parmesian and mozzarella) and served on a bed of spinach with a spicy Marsala wine and pepper sauce. Whew! Tasty? Yup! Filling? You betcha! Out of date by about 20 years? Without a doubt.
Very few Italian restaurants serve food this way any more, but Off The Strip's clientele seems to lap it up. If you seek something a bit more authentic, the pastas alla vodka and Bolognese are good places to start, as each accents the noodles with sauce, rather than overwhelming them. The Bolognese shows that Hubbard has some real chops, as it is rich with bits of meat cooked with a minimum of liquid, and as good any version you'll find five miles north. The Caesar salad is serviceable, and the "softball" meatball is of Rao's quality — which is to say, it is superb.
A final reason for the success of OTS: the prices. Most pastas hover in the $15 range, and only the steaks veer north of the $30 border. The wine and beer lists are short, but reasonable and well-chosen, and two of you will have to be really hungry to run up a bill in excess of a Benjamin.
After a meal here, you will be full and you will be happy, because the owners and staff will have taken good care of you throughout your meal. Whether or not you will be excited about what you ate probably depends upon how often you eat out and how adventuresome you are when you do. Despite its charms — which are many — Off The Strip is old-school, American-Italian mishmash cuisine to the max. Cranky critics — like me — be damned. "Just Real Food" (the restaurant's slogan) is what its customers want, and what the restaurant delivers.