Arty Appetite

 Ironwood Café, inside the Heard Museum, 2301 North Central, Phoenix, 602-252-8840. Hours: Breakfast and Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

As drivers on I-10 approach the Seventh Avenue and Seventh Street exits, signage directs them to Phoenix's downtown cultural mecca. Longtime residents are in on the joke -- that for many years the Valley has had hardly any culture to speak of, at least nothing special enough to warrant dedicated freeway monuments.

Times have changed. As the metro Phoenix area has grown over the past decade, so have downtown cultural venues. We have the serviceable Arizona Science Center. We've got Herberger Theater Center. We've got the lovingly restored Orpheum Theatre. And if sports-maven turned art-lover Jerry Colangelo has his way, we'll soon be tapping our feet to Broadway show tunes at his new stadium of the arts.

Have you Heard? The museum's renovation includes the Ironwood Café.
Have you Heard? The museum's renovation includes the Ironwood Café.

We've always had the Heard Museum, of course. Dwight B. and Maie Bartlett Heard founded the private, nonprofit museum in 1929 to house their personal art collection, and today, the center promotes the Native American Fine Art Movement. It's always been a jewel, but easily forgettable, hidden as it was off a small side street in a largely residential historic neighborhood.

When it reopened late last year after a dramatic renovation, though, it was with a nearly doubled public area and a grand entry facing Central Avenue. Improved amenities include three new gallery spaces, an auditorium, an education center, expanded museum shop and bookstore, and, my favorite addition, The Ironwood Café.

Is it a great eatery? No. But it is much better than the pre-, during- or post-museum visit noshing we might expect to be offered. And actually, there are even a few menu items that could entice me back, regardless of what's showing in the museum.

While just a little indoor-outdoor shop, the Ironwood Café packs an interesting punch. With food provided by the University Club of Phoenix, that's expected. The Club charges a $500 initiation fee and monthly dues of $65, after all, for the simple pleasure of dining at its members-only eatery just steps from the Heard. At the Ironwood, though, museum admission isn't even required. The Club's chefs have taken some extra effort with the Ironwood, too, offering some interest without going so wild as to scare off the tourists.

Tucked off a brick courtyard dotted with fountains and desert trees, the Ironwood is a cozy retreat from Phoenix's asphalt corridors. It's a refined choice for a relaxing solo lunch or a low-key business powwow. Silver metal patio tables and black woven chairs offer a contemporary feel, though I'm not sure how these materials will react when the sun starts sizzling down on us in the coming months. There's seating inside, too, though, and here it's cool and quiet, far away from field trip-crazy school kids racing along the Heard's new, expansive lawns. Service is cafeteria-style, with dishes mostly premade and waiting patiently on their Southwestern-design paper plates.

There's little to appreciate in breakfast, just a ho-hum assortment of bagels, muffins, cold cereals and fruit. Wait a couple of hours for lunch instead.

Given the Ironwood's smallish kitchen and the plastic-domed readiness of its entrees, I don't expect to like the soup too much. Real soup requires carefully crafted broths, gentle simmering and surely more time than the cafe's chefs can allot to this secondary dining enterprise.

Somebody's putting in the hours, apparently. Tortilla soup ($3) is a pleasant surprise, served nuclear hot in its paper bowl (don't touch, kiddies, just let it sit safely on its tray). Spicy broth floats with tender kidney and navy beans, corn and one tiny speck of chicken under tortilla frizzles, Cheddar and jack cheeses. With more generous poultry parceling, this soup could be a contender. One day's special of homemade chicken rice soup ($3) also lacks substance -- a few little droplets of white meat don't cut it. Still, the creamy base is nice enough with its tiny dice of carrot and celery.

If the low menu prices are encouraging management to skimp on the meat, I strongly suggest they boost items by a buck and give us more real food. While it's nice to not be taken advantage of as a "captive" museum visitor, I'd happily pay a bit more to supplement the thimbleful of ground beef in my Sonoran corn stew ($3.50). This eats more like a soup with thin, oily broth, but it's got a hearty tomato flavor I like, floating with whole bay leaf, green pepper, corn, refreshing summer squash and slivers of onion. True Southwesterners -- those with a taste for vigorous spice -- likely will be bored after a few bites, yet it's a friendly welcome for the sightseer crowd.

And then, I find the beef. Lots of it in the chili ($3.50), crammed with deliciously tender chunks of beef and pork. There's little else, though. No beans, just the tiniest slips of onion and red pepper. Its tingly sauce practically cries for a hunk of good, sweet corn bread.

I find a solution by ordering a maize dog ($1.95) on the side. Despite the cute name, it's a basic, microwaved all-beef corn dog. It's not elegant, served in a foil sleeve, but the hot dog's sure to please the pickiest child. And the corn bread coating works for me, as I pull it apart (tacky, I know, but hot dogs ain't exactly upscale cuisine) and dip it in my chili.

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