Red, White and Food

A sudden hunger for good old-fashioned American comfort food

The building itself remains classic, a 1928 Craftsman-style home peeking from behind a white picket fence, with scads of roses and lattice work porches sprawling with vines. But gone is the cozy cottage feel; the eclectic antiques and lace curtains moved down the road. Instead, there are cookie-cutter tables topped with green vinyl, green vinyl chairs, and a collection of catalogue-coordinated country kitsch lining the walls. Mom's kitchen never cranked the Eurythmics and Ricky Martin at 8 a.m., either.

The menu defies its setting, too, focusing on things we'd expect to see at Denny's rather than at a historic cafe. Biscuits and gravy are à la carte only. So are hot cakes, French toast and a waffle. Instead, uninspired breakfast entrees include diner things like an egg sandwich, chopped steak and eggs or New York steak and eggs. The most interesting offering is a side option of Picket Rice, cooked with bits of sausage.

The folks who lived in The Little House on the Prairie surely didn't feast on frittatas, and the do-it-yourself version here is more clunky than comforting. The three-egg blend is cumbersome, dry and sprinkled with our choice of three items. (Sliced sausage rounds from a farm kitchen? Not the good, crumbly stuff? Say it ain't so.) Chicken-fried steak's another sleeper, lacking any great peppery spice in the batter and, horror, missing gravy until we request it. A side of grilled, grocery-quality French loaf is an unacceptable substitute for honest-to-goodness toast.

The Back Porch Cafe has its own apple dumpling gang.
Erik Guzowski
The Back Porch Cafe has its own apple dumpling gang.

Details

Back Porch Cafe, 397 South Gilbert Road, Gilbert, 480-926-8671. Hours: Lunch and early dinner, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 10a.m. to 4 p.m.

Wild Turkey: $5.50
Hen House: $4.95
Apple Dumplings: $3.50

Picket Fence, 397 South Gilbert Road, Gilbert, 480-539-0770. Hours: Breakfast, daily, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Lunch, daily, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Chicken-fried steak & eggs: $7.75
Stuffed pork chop: $6.95
Reuben: $5.25

J.P. Pancake, 9619 North Hayden, Scottsdale, 480-596-9369. Hours: Breakfast and lunch, 7a.m. to 1:30p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (breakfast items only on Sunday).

Pigs-in-a-blanket: $5.50
Apple pancake: $7.95
Tuna melt: $7.25

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We can get main day dishes like these anywhere in town -- pan-grilled New York steak, grilled chicken breast and cheeseburgers. Grilled swordfish, even, shows up as a tiny fillet tossed on chopped iceberg and red cabbage, with cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and from-the-box croutons. A Reuben, too, is classic but unremarkable, with spiritless sauerkraut -- the best thing is the side of potato salad, vibrant with yellow mustard and spliced with chopped egg and celery.

If the kitchen focused on items like their specialty, stuffed pork chop, Picket Fence would be a contender. The only thing wrong with this piggy beauty is that it's much too small a chunk of excellent meat, plumped with a mouthwatering savory sourdough and mushroom stuffing. Sides of chunky, skin-on potatoes are more baked than mashed, unfortunately, and dry in their gravy-less presentation.

And how could an American kitchen mess up beef stew? This is soup, really, and ruined by nearly raw vegetables (an everything-but-the-sink mix of green beans, corn, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, peas, onion, mushrooms, lima beans and celery) plus chewy meat.

J.P. Pancake

Pigs-in-a-blanket. Enough said. That only-in-America dish is on the menu at J.P.'s, and it's terrific. First, the pancakes. J.P. fashions the fluffy discs with buttermilk and griddles them to a perfect golden, lacy-crisp edge. Then, the sausages. These healthy critters are Hormel links, juicy and subtle with spices for a taste we all grew up with. Then, the presentation, the pigs tucked happily into their warm comforters and wished sweet dreams with drizzles of tropical syrup, indulgent dollops of whipped butter and sprinkles of powdered sugar.

This place, in an eclectic strip mall at Mountain View and Hayden, sure doesn't look like casual breakfast and lunch. It's in a former space for at least two upscale restaurants that grew past their tiny bistro setting, and management hasn't spent money changing decor. Dark carpeted floors, black walls spiked with glittering mirrors, and black leather-look booths, their tables covered with brocade tablecloths, remain. Chandeliers with your corned beef hash? Why not? This food is still top-notch, down-home country cooking, making us even more proud to be American.

Breakfast is served all day, and a biscuit combo makes a filling lunch too, mounding a duo of fat, properly heavy dough rounds with two eggs, cubed grilled potatoes and ladles of creamy, sausage-studded gravy. What makes a deluxe omelet "Hong Kong style" I don't know, but it's good: a chubby roll stuffed with crumbled sausage, onion, green pepper, mushrooms and American plus Monterey Jack cheeses. French toast is just fabulous, splayed six slices across and fashioned from thick challah dipped in lots of egg and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Dress it up with cinnamon, fresh strawberries or gingered peach compote.

It's hard to be gloomy about the future when faced with such specialty pancakes as J.P.'s -- crowned with fresh blueberries, blended with chopped mixed nuts, or crafted from natural whole grains. Twenty minutes is a reasonable waiting time when it results in a wonderful oven-baked apple pancake the size of a dinner plate and glistening with fresh sliced apples and sugar-cinnamon glaze. Fancier and fantastic: five kinds of Belgian waffles, or a plate of three eggs scrambled with silky lox and chopped onion, partnered by three pancakes, buttery home fries or toast.

Lunch is lower key, with an offering of 11 sandwiches and a daily quiche. But who needs more than this terrific tuna melt on nine-grain, the bread crusted with sunflower seeds and grilled buttery gold? The sandwich arrives obese with albacore and cradling two slabs of gooey melting Swiss. The turkey club's tops, too, gorged with fresh-from-the-bird breast, thick-cut bacon, juicy tomato, crisp romaine and a slather of mayonnaise (try it toasted). There's no cutting corners with chicken salad, either, tossing hearty cubes of grilled breast in highly dilled mayo, capped with lettuce, tomato, alfalfa sprouts and red onion.

With food like this, the American spirit surely isn't flagging.

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