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Free Fire Zone

The praise or blame lies with the diner at Fire + Ice

Actually, I'm not really sure whether it's the bottomless bowl, the cocktails or the loud music that attracts Generation Y to Fire + Ice. Maybe it's the location. The old Hard Rock Cafe building on Kirby Drive is a perfect fit for these diners, who all seem to be 22 years old. There are large-scale birthday parties full of whooping 22-year-olds, same-sex tables of 22-year-olds, and 22-year-olds out on dates. Here and there, a mom with her adolescent kids, or a misplaced pair of gray-hairs, or even an aging food critic with his girlfriend and kids pops up.

Although they miss the target audience on both sides, my girlfriend and my two teenage daughters love this place. On our second visit, they're already old pros, waving off the server's explanation of how it all works to go directly to the salad bar. The salads are spinach, mixed greens or Caesar, with three corresponding dressings. When we get back to our table, the server delivers a cannonball of freshly baked sourdough bread on a wooden cutting board with a bread knife.

We finish our salads and get ready to attack the main dishes. Our strategies are widely divergent. The women are on diets, and they pride themselves on how little they put in their bowls. Meanwhile, I (and every other male in the place) have done a little mental engineering to determine how to cram the maximum number of calories into the little bowl. We know we can go back for seconds (and thirds and fourths), but we take a perverse pride in making every trip count.

Compliments to the chef: If you like your meal at Fire + Ice, you know who to thank -- yourself.
Troy Fields
Compliments to the chef: If you like your meal at Fire + Ice, you know who to thank -- yourself.

Details

713-522-4500. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight. Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Lunch (one trip with salad): $8.45
Lunch (unlimited trips with salad): $9.95
Dinner (unlimited trips with salad): $15.95
World Feast (unlimited trips, salad, rotisserie meats): $24.95
Lemon sunburst: $7.50
Infusion margarita: $7.50

2801 Kirby Drive

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The proteins this time include chicken, turkey, pork tenderloin, salmon, kielbasa, Italian chicken sausage, andouille sausage, tofu, shrimp (two kinds), aged sirloin, swordfish, mussels, squid and crawfish tails. The vegetables and noodles are too numerous to name, but they include all the usual stir-fry ingredients along with a few Italian and Mexican tangents. The sauces I see are onion-sesame, Creole, hoisin barbecue, ginger-sesame, Thai basil, chipotle honey, pomodoro, Thai red curry, Greenberg's teriyaki, fajita, Dijon and barbecue sauce.

This time I'm following a tip from Robert Nadeau's review in the Phoenix. Ignore the restaurant's suggestion that you start with protein and end with sauce, he counsels. Go directly to the sauces and start there. It's good advice. The panang I liked so much on my girlfriend's shrimp during our first visit isn't available now, so I decide on a Thai red curry and make an appropriate seafood and Asian vegetable mix to go with it.

The display cards are marked with little peppers to tell you how hot each sauce is. I can't remember if the Thai red curry had two or three peppers, but it hardly matters. I can't taste any heat at all. Luckily they have jalapeño slices in the vegetable section, so you can correct the timid Massachusetts seasonings. I use about five jalapeño slices, and my Thai curry comes out nicely spiced.

Unfortunately, my grill chef is preoccupied. Between the two cooks working on a recent Wednesday night, there must be about 20 meals on the grill at the same time. The chef neglects to turn my food over until he puts the sauce on it, so the shrimp comes out brown and crisp on one side and nearly raw on the other. Our server brings us a bowl of white rice and a paper bag full of flour tortillas when we get back with our plates.

The tortillas inspire my girlfriend to go back for a fajita plate. For my second visit to the grill, I decide on sirloin with mushrooms, onions, peppers and Greenberg's teriyaki. The cooks aren't quite so overwhelmed this time, and the meat gets turned often. It comes out as good as you can expect for steak on a griddle. And, as you'd also expect, Greenberg's teriyaki is as innocuous as Kikkoman.

The food at Fire + Ice is more of a crapshoot than at Benihana and Tokyohana. There's not much to screw up in the cooking as long as the chef remembers to turn your food, but it's amazing how bad the various sauces and ingredients can taste together. I am the author of several cookbooks, so I should know better, but I still managed to mismatch seafood with Chinese five-spice sauce.

Imagine what some of these 22-year-olds are eating. While going through the assembly line, I see one lunkhead piling steak and salmon in the same bowl with nothing but scallions for vegetables. I wonder which sauce he'll have with that. I'm betting on the pomodoro -- it's the closest thing to ketchup.

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