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.

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.

I can do without the chicken salad sandwich ($5.75). It's skimpy, with large rings of raw white onion (yuck), corn, black beans, lettuce and tomato on a wheat roll. One time it arrives with its promised avocado, another time it doesn't. Somewhat runny, virtually pureed tuna salad ($5.75) is much better, thanks largely to its very fresh croissant and simple topping of American cheese.

The Ironwood's more creative sandwiches succeed, except that they're so refrigerated that it's difficult to appreciate their nuances. By my second visit, I'm bold enough to ask that my marinated beef pocket ($5.75) be popped in the microwave for 20 seconds. It's improved -- not cooked, just thawed a bit. Any enhancement helps this gyro-like creation of overdone beef strips (not shredded, as listed; shredding would better hide the poor meat) with raw green pepper strips and spirals of raw onion. I can't taste any of the promised hint of jalapeño marinade, but the outstanding pita bread is tasty enough to eat on its own.

Roast pork sandwich ($5.75), meanwhile, brings an ample serving of real piggy loin slabs on a soft onion roll spread with mild cilantro garlic mayonnaise. A quick zap in the microwave releases its flavors -- this is well-prepared meat. I particularly enjoy how the juices from a side of "Painted Desert" coleslaw soak into the bun -- the slaw's not too sweet or runny, just a crunchy tangle of moistened red cabbage and carrot.

But it's the high desert wrap ($6.75) that's the Ironwood Café's real art. It's pretty simple, with slightly chewy lamb, chopped green chiles, black beans, chunky tomato, shredded iceberg lettuce and red cabbage, corn and jicama all tucked in a flour tortilla. If only the kitchen could free it from the Antarctic that is their refrigerator.

Thai salad ($6.75) is another worthy diversion, a portrait of mandarin oranges and red grapes, centered by chopped peanuts and dry white albacore on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce and red cabbage. Tiny bits of cilantro and mint lend periodic whips of flavor, yet surely the kitchen has sent out the wrong dressing -- it's not at all spicy as advertised, but thin, sweet poppy seed. Perhaps they've confused it with the peanut dressing served with my Santa Fe salad ($6.75). This groovy blend has real kick, especially when brushed on the hearty portion of lime-marinated grilled chicken breast strips. This salad invites me back, with a blend of greens, diced pale tomato, black beans, jicama strips and Cheddar. Its only failing: tortilla strips that have been left to sit out in an open container and gone stale.

It's not a masterpiece, but the Ironwood Café certainly deserves a return engagement.

Art Museum Cafe, inside Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central, Phoenix, 602-257-2191. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Phoenix Art Museum (or PAM, as the hip folks call it), scored a major coup with its Monet exhibit last year. Suddenly, art was approachable -- it looked just like the postcards grandma sent when she finally took her dream vacation to Europe. The masses responded, well, en masse, and rewarded PAM with sellout crowds and record-breaking attendance.

If things don't improve at PAM's Art Museum Cafe, however, this overlooked restaurant may cause some culinary deprecation. I don't quite know what the trouble is. Local talent Eddie Matney tried to make a go of the place a few years back, calling it Eddie's Art Museum Cafe. It didn't work. Now, the Cafe is presented by Arizona Taste Catering Company, one of the Valley's finer groups. I've been to plenty of enjoyable events orchestrated by Arizona Taste and have never experienced the dreck that's being served inside this Cafe's green and gray walls.

The possibilities are there. The Cafe has an ample kitchen and a well-written menu. There's lots of seating with blond wood chairs, and it's soothingly quiet (keep it in mind for business lunches, folks, where talk is more important than food). Museum members even receive a small discount. It's fun to "sneak in" after being given a badge that shows we're too cheap to pay entry, but still peek at the art leading to the Cafe's entry.

But the inside is sterile, with views of an empty concrete courtyard. There are cloth napkins, but a single server must scurry between tables and cash register, often too busy to ask if we want dessert before dropping the check.

Nicoise salad ($8.25) is a nicety not often found on local menus. It's a yummy blend and good for you, too. But this albacore tuna has been slicked with mayonnaise, and someone has added nontraditional boiled red new potato. The rest is fine -- red onion, green beans, mixed greens, black olives, tomato, hard-boiled egg and bread chunks in a so-so garlic Dijon vinaigrette. Yet, my dining companion, a lover of entree salads, is unimpressed.

I can't forgive AZ Taste Caesar ($6.50) as easily -- its chicken breast add-on ($1 more) never should have made it to my plate. The pepper-studded bird is ruined by the flavor of refrigerated fat -- one strip is actually fat and gristle. It's too bad, because I like the Cafe's Southwestern Caesar dressing boosted with nutty Asiago cheese and the fluffy tortilla strips (think taco-salad shell). Chunks of eggy challah-like bread are marvelous.

The "ever-changing" soup and salad bar ($6.75) needs to be completely revamped. After my dining companion returns from a second trip with the same two items -- a weird, chewy, skinned red potato salad and the yawnable Primavera salad (zucchini, pasta and red peppers in a slightly peppery oil dressing) served with all Cafe sandwiches -- I feel so sorry for him I feed him half of my chicken sandwich. There are no other choices, he whimpers, just vegetables, and who wants that in a salad? He returns my favor by making me sample the soup of the day -- a pureed pepper soup that has absolutely no taste and an off-putting oatmeal-like texture.

Here, at least, the chicken is done well enough. A chicken and green chile sandwich ($6.75) may or may not be mesquite grilled; I can't taste any smoke, but I do like the buffalo mozzarella between the wheat bun. I'm almost at a loss to describe the meat loaf sandwich, though ($6.75). What's to make of a pressed flat loaf, looking for all the world like a processed blend? It tastes of nothing on its grilled roll, and stranger still when slicked with a sweet ketchup assaulted by horseradish-tasting spice.

A smoked turkey sandwich ($6.50) is fine, topped with soft Dofino and tangy whole-cranberry chutney thoughtfully served on the side. But there's no mayo available today, our server tells us, and we can only dream how much better lunch might have been. Or how much better the individual vegetarian quiche could be when served fresh. As it is, it's an overcooked pastry of mushroom and overwhelming spinach topped with Asiago.

In fact, one of the most satisfying meals at PAM's Cafe is a kid's entree of grilled cheese ($4.50), blending classic Holsum and Velveeta served with nacho-flavor tortilla chips and sweet dice of strawberry, cantaloupe, honeydew, red grapes and pineapple.

The primary visual interest at the Art Museum Cafe is a cold display case of Saran-wrapped, baked-on-site desserts and Calistoga beverages. New York cheesecake with raspberry sauce and German chocolate-like caramel cake (desserts $3.50) are worth a few bites, but the best of the bunch is the AZ Taste Signature bread pudding, offering a glimpse of the skills I know this caterer to have. This isn't a rocket-science recipe, but simple fluffy bread baked with red grapes and cinnamon. Okay, it's not fancy Chantilly cream -- I see the waitress squeeze the topping from a large plastic bag -- but it's still tasty.

The signs are there. The Valley wants a downtown cultural core. We've built it. Let's be ready to feed them when they come.

Contact Carey Sweet at 602-744-6558 or online at carey.sweet@newtimes.com

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