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AJ's Purveyor of Fine Foods, 5017 North Central, Phoenix, 230-7291. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 8 p.m.
An old marketing axiom says it's best not to be an innovator in business. That way, you can learn from the other guy's mistakes, improve the product and ultimately siphon off customers. Maybe AJ's, Reay's upscale-gourmet-market competitor, is waiting to see how its rival's restaurant enterprise turns out. In the meantime, AJ's continues to dish out high-end, Styrofoam-packed dinners from its in-store kitchens, but only for home consumption. If your home is anything like mine, the ambiance will not approach restaurant levels. Our kitchen table is neatly positioned between a basket of cat toys, a deskful of unsorted January mail and dirty dishes bearing the remains of the kids' nonstop, after-school eating binges. Background music is provided by a constantly ringing telephone, bringing us endless message streams from carpet-cleaning companies, credit-card pushers and soccer coaches.
5017 N Central Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85012
Region: Central Phoenix
But while AJ's can't provide atmosphere, it does spare you the time and bother of cooking. And it cooks up many more hits than misses.
Two soups are offered daily, and the ones I tried are worthy starters. Manhattan clam chowder had a pleasing, briny tang. And because I served myself, I made sure I ladled out a thickly stocked portion, heavy on clams and light on the broth. The corn chowder is even better, a creamy concoction studded with corn, potatoes and red pepper. Excellent bread and rolls from the adjacent bakery make good soup supplements. AJ's prints out the week's menu on Monday, and it features two different dinner options every night. In addition, according to whim and what's available, the chef prepares two or three more main-dish choices each night. They're all set out in metal chafing dishes, ready for sale at about 4 p.m.
I don't know how often other diners have encountered beef Wellington as a supermarket take-home-dinner item, but seeing it at AJ's was a first for me. And what a sight: a gorgeous hunk of restaurant-quality beef, perfectly cloaked with mushrooms and pastry-dough crust. Short ribs in a lip-smacking teriyaki glaze is also a winner. Actually, it's just a single, meaty beef rib with a gnaw-to-the-bone quality. Unless you're a jockey, it probably won't fill you up. Perhaps AJ's could make this two ribs to an order and charge a couple of extra bucks. Pork Dijon was another strong part of that evening's lineup, a tender, mustard-coated medallion wrapped in puff pastry. The side dishes, though, needed lots of help. Scalloped potatoes had an unmistakable institutional touch. The mixed veggies had no business here at all--a dreadful blend of green beans, corn, lima beans and cubed carrots that looked and tasted as if it came right out of a bag. On another occasion, the main dishes batted .500. Shepherd's pie isn't a production like beef Wellington, or even pork Dijon, but AJ's ground-beef-and-mashed-potato version was all this dish could be. The veal stew, however, was an outright failure, done in by gristly, tough cubes of meat.
One of the perks of buying dinner at AJ's is the opportunity to wander around the store's wine and dessert sections. You'll have no problem finding something drinkable, in any color, from any wine-producing land. And the sweets are very good, particularly the cheesecakes that sport the heavy, creamy texture I admire.
Of course, the downside to all of this temptation is that will-power-challenged people like me may end up spending almost as much on a takeout dinner as a restaurant meal. One more note: AJ's really works hard on service. The people behind the various counters affably answered every inane question I could torment them with. The guy at the check-out counter sprinted down the aisle to pick up something I couldn't find. And not five minutes ago, as I write this, the store manager called up in response to a query I scribbled on a customer satisfaction card (under an assumed name) about short-grain rice. Gee. Good food. Good selection. Good service. What a novel concept.