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Easterners come to live in the Valley for a variety of reasons. Indeed, the metro area is beginning to split at the seams, the air to curdle and the pavement to crack under the strain of all the people from the East, and elsewhere, who found so many good reasons to come here and stay. There's the majestic scenery and the blessed absence of winter. And, even now, at the end of the century, this chunk of the continent still holds the promise of a new horizon, a fresh start.
What it does not hold, however, is an overabundance of fine dining after 9 p.m.
I'm one of those belated pioneers myself. Yeah, that's right, when you longtime 'zonies grumble about all the newbies who moved here in the last two decades and screwed up your sleepy little desert town, it's me you're grumbling about. Seven years ago, at the age of 29, I decided that I'd better go West while I still remotely could be called a young man.
Tuna salad sandwich
I've never regretted it, but, as with all life decisions, it came with a price, and one part of that price was culinary. I'm a lifelong night owl -- an incurable floor-pacing, wall-crawling, sidewalk-pounding insomniac. I'm also, alas, an incorrigible midnight snacker. And for late-night eating with any character, the Southwest simply can't hold a Sweet 'N Low packet to the great cities of the East.
In Washington, D.C., where I lived for four years before I moved here, I used to be able to choose between a Syrian dinner, a French dinner or a good burger, all affordable, all walking distance from my apartment and all available at 3:35 a.m. Even in the grim industrial streets of my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, it's easier to find a good Greek omelet or pizza sub after the witching hour than it is here.
The Valley of the Sun takes her moniker seriously: Not long after Phoebus settles in behind the horizon to rest from his hard day of pummeling us into whimpering submission, this city of two million plus makes like Mayberry with the sidewalks. If your fridge is empty, finding food without leaning out of your car window to talk into a box or reaching into the cooler at Circle K is going to prove difficult.
But it's not impossible. If you know where to look and are willing to drive a little distance, you can sit down to some fairly satisfying eats while the rest of the city snoozes.
Denny's is a traditional stop for the late-night hungry, but you won't find it on this tour. Even though my ability to eat almost anything without indigestion has long made me suspect that my stomach lining was composed of some impenetrable alloy that the Department of Defense might want to study, I've never been able to get a Denny's meal to agree with me. Besides, a friend of mine has a theory: that you never really go to Denny's; you simply end up at Denny's. I want to explore late-night chow-downs that aren't merely the product of desperation, that one might truly look forward to.
But if you replace the D with a J and the n's with r's, you get the name of a similar place I do like. A recent late-night screening of the shark thriller Deep Blue Sea put me in a carnivorous mood, and so, in the company of two pals, I went for a plate of liver and onions at Jerry's, 2323 East Thomas, 602-956-2870.
Dietitians have long warned us that eating late at night is bad for your health. An after-midnight visit to Jerry's does little to debunk this theory. The smattering of bleary-eyed diners at the other tables can give you the feeling that you have wandered into a David Lynch movie.
If you must wreck your health, however, there are far less tasty, far more expensive ways you could do it. The liver and onions, for instance, is quite appetizing -- the meat is tender and flavorful, the onions zesty, the potatoes fluffy and the side of veggies bright with the primary colors of the just-defrosted.
My two friends ate less ambitiously. One had the two-egg breakfast and pronounced it very good. The other had the potato munchers -- deep-fried clods of tuber starch, melted cheese and jalapeño peppers with, in case all of that doesn't provide quite enough punch, a dish of ranch dressing on the side for dipping. It's about as nutritionally contemptible as cuisine gets, but it's also pretty yummy.
No doubt about it, though, the food at Jerry's is, at best, workmanlike; and at worst it's a guilty pleasure. The same holds true for the various Country Boys Restaurants around the Valley. If you're looking to, say, indulge a sweet tooth at 4:27 a.m., and provided you don't mind the society of a thickly bearded guy in a "Lone Wolf Guns 'n' Ammo" tee shirt or a hard-bitten woman expertly extracting stuffed toys from the Skill Crane game, you could do worse than the Country Boys deep dish pie, a small dish of pie filling topped with a crumbly crust.
There's much to be said for late-night options that aren't even as good as Jerry's or Country Boys, especially when the prices are so manageable. But if you're willing to pry your wallet open a little wider, you can find even better quality.
The desserts at 5 & Diner, for instance, are classic. A friend of mine blames the chocolate cream pie there for regularly destroying her diet, and I have a weakness for that faux-'50s joint's fine rich malts, complete with the pockets of dry powder hiding here and there in the creamy semiliquid.
But for after-hours grub in all areas -- entrees, desserts, sandwiches, breakfasts -- that can stand alongside many of the better prime-time meals in the Valley, Scottsdale's Fast Freddy's, 7551 East Camelback, 480-970-9507, is a real find.
The caveats first: In terms of decor, Fast Freddy's, part of the "Goldman Group of Restaurants," is a little on the tragically hip/corporate side. As with 5 & Diner, the theme is ersatz-McCarthy era, but here it's mixed with touches that look like they come from the rave scene. TV monitors dish out music videos, Jerry Springer and body-building contests on ESPN, and the walls are covered with a grayish beaten-metal siding that creates the atmosphere of some sort of Eurotrashy techno club.
Also, the place isn't always open. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, it's open from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Then it stays open round-the-clock from 6:30 a.m. Thursdays throughout the weekends, before closing ignominiously early on Sundays at -- argh! -- 11 p.m. Still, for the Valley, this ain't bad.
Finally, it's not particularly cheap. If your taste buds are sleepy, Jerry's or Country Boys may be good enough for them. But if they're wide awake and howling for the good stuff at any price, then you're ready for Freddy.
Put it this way -- you can get halibut there. Halibut. In a lemon basil sauce. At 2:18 a.m. Sure, it'll cost you 11 bucks, but that's comparable to, or less than, what you'd pay for halibut at most restaurants during the hours that respectable people eat.
Actually, except for liver and onions, the menu has pretty much anything you're likely to want. I heard a server there recommending the eggs Benedict to some diners at another table, and I took his advice. Good move -- Freddy's does the dish as well as any place I've been in the Valley, and it comes with a side of the fried potato/green pepper mix. A variation on the Benedict is the Spiny Benny -- the same dish, minus the ham steak, but with creamed spinach, mushrooms and bacon.
Another fascinating original on which I feasted was the Lemon Lights, pancakes with cottage cheese and lemon juice mixed into the batter, with a side of sausage or bacon for irony. The lemon adds a surprisingly strong, fresh kick to the pancakes. The menu also offers potato pancakes, caramel praline pancakes and matzo pancakes.
The more traditional diner fare kicks butt at Fast Freddy's, too. My wife believes that, just as a society may be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members, so too a restaurant may be judged by how it treats its tuna fish. The plain old tuna fish sandwich at Freddy's rated raves, although the mediocre side salad with Caesar dressing wasn't the liveliest accompaniment the sandwich could have had.
There were some oddities on the menu that I wasn't willing either to brave or to pay for. I asked the server, a nice fellow dressed and coifed as if to play in Brian Setzer's Orchestra, if anyone had ever ordered the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the $5.95 price tag for which seems a tad steep, even allowing that it's double decker.
"No," he said flatly. He thought about this a minute, then enigmatically qualified his answer. "Well, one woman did. But she was a dancer, so she had plenty of money."
Okay, I asked, what about the jelly omelet? "Your choice of grape or strawberry jelly folded inside," the menu promises.
"No," he said again. "You know, most of the stuff you see on the menu and sort of go, 'What?' Well, everybody else sees it and sort of goes, 'What?' too."
Yet this is precisely what I find so splendid about the Fast Freddy's menu. I'll probably never want a grape-jelly omelet, but I want to live in a city where I can get one if the craving ever does hit me. Especially at 1:39 a.m. Bedtime knack: Katie Lamonda delivers late greats at Fast Freddy's.