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Niagara American Grill: Mystery tax aside, a nice addition to tourist area

NIAGARA FALLS – As a native Niagaran, it has always saddened and frustrated me to see how a locale with such a world-renowned attraction can never seem to get over the hump. For all its best efforts, it appears that every time the Cataract City takes one step forward, it stumbles two steps back.

For instance, the powers that be spend tons of time and money sprucing up sight lines at the state park, but neglect the neighborhoods surrounding it. Hotels and businesses accommodate many of the millions of visitors who gravitate here on an annual basis, but fail to adequately protect their vehicles and valuables. For every car that is broken into downtown, for every GPS and digital camera stolen, how many return visits are lost?

I could go on and on. How about this one? They get an exciting – and affordable – new restaurant downtown. We drop in for a meal and love the place. Love it! Then, we get the bill and notice a line in between the “tax” and the “total” that reads “DMF.” It inexplicably adds what looks to be about 3 percent to the total bill, with absolutely no explanation.

A little research uncovers that “DMF” is a “destination marketing fee,” now added at many venues – surreptitiously, of course. Online, rumor has it that this is a “voluntary” tax, and businesses will happily deduct it if asked.

To me, it looks like just another way to unfairly gouge visitors.

Anyway, enough negativity. Let the positivity commence!

The Niagara American Grill at Days Inn opened recently, replacing a Denny’s. It’s an impressive upgrade.

The restaurant offers not only a surprisingly extensive breakfast, lunch and dinner menu, but also a remarkable selection of locally produced craft beers.

Judging by looks alone, the place isn’t overly impressive. It’s a small space, and not particularly attractive. I wouldn’t consider it a “romantic destination” by any stretch of the imagination. Parking isn’t exactly easy or cheap if you can’t get a spot in the hotel lot. But those are all minor drawbacks.

The food is the main attraction. Tasty, creative, affordable. These are verbs not typically strung together – at least not in this neighborhood. But at the Niagara American Grill, the shoe fits.

We started the evening off with an order of the stuffed hot peppers ($9) from the appetizers section. They were billed as roasted Hungarian peppers stuffed with three cheeses and herbs, and served atop grilled garlic ciabatta bread. Sound good? You bet, and they tasted even better.

“Best thing ever!” my daughter, Meagan, exclaimed.

Our foray into the main menu yielded some interesting choices – beef brisket ($20 and highly recommended by our server), beer battered fish and chips ($17), shrimp fajitas (also $17) and the orange blossom sesame chicken stir fry (also $17, also highly recommended). Our server also lavished praise on the beef on weck – the thought of which I momentarily entertained, before opting for fish and chips. I thought that would be more of a challenge for the kitchen.

Turns out I was right ... and maybe a little wrong. The fish and chips came with a cup of coleslaw that was simply divine. We took turns trying to identify the secret ingredient that lent a milky, sweet texture to the sauce. When we couldn’t, we asked our server. He asked the kitchen, and was threatened with extermination for even inquiring.

My fish, on the other hand, didn’t appear to be “made-to-order ... in our secret beer batter.” Oh, it was good, don’t get me wrong. But I’d bet my pencil that it came out of a package, batter and all, and wasn’t hand-dipped. It just had that look and feel to it. By the way, the tartar sauce did appear to be homemade.

My meal was topped with seasoned fries. It’s hard to do fries wrong, and these weren’t.

The fajitas were served on multiple platters. Three soft tortillas on one; sizzling shrimp on another; and fresh guacamole, sour cream, grilled peppers, onions and a huge pile of seasoned rice topped with copious amounts of nacho cheese on yet another. My other daughter, Steffany, said they were great, with everything fresh, tasty and in adequate amounts.

Meagan’s stir fry was “good, but not the best ever,” she said. It consisted of crispy strips of boneless, breaded chicken and an assortment of veggies over rice, topped with what seemed (to me, at least) to be a store-bought sauce. Again, it just had a taste and texture that said, “not from scratch.” It’s not that it wasn’t good – it was.

My wife Teresa’s brisket was a bit of a conundrum. She was expecting more of a barbecue, but a closer look at the menu offered a braised dish, simmered in beef broth for six hours and served over “hand-smashed” potatoes, onions, celery, tomatoes and carrots.

The meat was tender and tasty, with expert seasoning and lots of vegetables. But it also had lots of broth – enough to make it the world’s thickest and chunkiest soup, almost. Oh, and the potatoes were whole, not smashed, and just kind of simmered, like the rest of it. Teresa’s starter salad was excellent, as well: a nice mix of greens, topped with alfalfa sprouts. We all got slices of garlic bread – thick, crusty, juicy and tasty garlic bread.

All in all, we couldn’t complain about the meals, prices or service.

As for the DMF, make mine an IOU.

Niagara American Grill

443 Main St., Niagara Falls (284-2501) 3.5 stars (out of 4)

Favorite dish: Shrimp fajitas, stuffed hot peppers

Needs work: That awful DMF

Healthy choice: Mediterranean pasta

Price range: Moderate

Service: Quite good

Noise level: Low to moderate

Wheelchair access: Yes

Parking: Connected lot

Kid appeal: Like a superhero

Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday through Monday, 6:30 a.m. to midnight.

Website: niagaraamericangrill.com

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