To say that Beaver Choice is an unusual restaurant is an understatement. Simply uttering the name can elicit furrowed brows, stifled laughter, or both. The logo, a clothed cartoon beaver brandishing a knife and fork, could easily be a public service announcement telling kids to brush their teeth after a meal or perhaps the seal of good eating for, or of, large, semi-aquatic rodents.
And then there's the restaurant itself, nestled into a Tempe strip mall just behind Ted's Hot Dogs — its windows spray-painted in bright orange and yellow, its small interior, half fro-yo joint/half Sun City living room, furnished with sleek glass tables, a thrift store couch, amateur paintings of flowers, and, yes, a large plush beaver atop a bakery case.
Get past the giggles and you'll find the food at Beaver Choice — a little Polish, a little Canadian, and a whole lot Swedish — gets seriously delicious in a hurry. Which makes this quirky little eatery one of the Valley's most unique and (for now) best-kept secrets.
There are exquisite plates of buttery haddock fillets, luxuriating in a bath of heavy cream, tomatoes, and fragrant baby dill; a golden pork schnitzel, its crispy, buttery coating accompanied by a ramekin of never-enough creamy mushroom sauce; and chunky Swedish meatballs, laden with cardamom and slathered in a rich cream sauce, with a side of lingonberry preserves.
In case you were wondering (and by now, how could you not be?), Beaver Choice is the name (innocently) chosen by owner and chef Hanna Gabrielsson to best represent her Swedish and Canadian backgrounds — the beaver being Canada's national animal and his cartoon shirt of three crowns representing the national emblem of Sweden. Vivacious, friendly, and as hearty as her fare, Gabrielsson is a force — and one that you most certainly will meet at Beaver Choice, because keeping to the kitchen isn't in her DNA.
Originally from Poland, Gabrielsson moved to Sweden in 1982, where she went to school, raised a family, and learned to cook from the chef responsible for the Nobel Prize banquet (his instruction of never cooking with more than five ingredients is one Gabrielsson uses to this day). Living in a country almost entirely surrounded by water, Gabrielsson fell in love with fish, especially salmon. She learned to cure her own, a two-day process with a marinade of salt, sugar, and dill. Used at Beaver Choice in laxpudding, a staple of the Swedish kitchen, the buttery, orange pieces of fish are piled atop a hearty disc made of eggs, sliced potatoes, and cream.
Fish gets baked at Beaver Choice, too. There are aluminum tins filled with haddock and leeks baked in crème fraîche and caviar sauce, done when the top is tinged with spots of golden brown, and Janssons Temptation, traditionally part of the Swedish smorgasbord, a savory, layered creation of Swedish-style anchovies, sweet, not salty, with potatoes, onions, and heavy cream. Gabrielsson, with hands on hips, may tell you it comes with a money-back guarantee if you're not satisfied. It is not a good idea to bet against her.
If you happen to order the pytt i panna, which in Sweden means something close to "put it in the pan," you will receive a Scandinavian-mountain-size pile of Swedish comfort food that would do the American hangover proud, in the form of fried potato cubes and onions mixed with ham and smoked sausage hash, then topped with a fried egg.
But of all Gabrielsson's flavorful Swedish cuisine, none gets more exotic than the Flying Jacob. Invented by an aviator, this Swedish casserole arrives looking like lava that has pooled in a pie tin. Its unusual ingredient mix of marinated chicken, bananas, peanuts, and mashed potatoes baked in a chile cream sauce makes for a mix of sweet, salty, and creamy followed by a slow heat and a flavor sensation most of us outside Sweden's borders have not been fortunate enough to savor.
And if at Beaver Choice, you pine more for the food of Poland than fare from the land the Vikings once roamed, Gabrielsson can accommodate. There are traditional Polish cabbage rolls, called golabki —two fist-size parcels slathered in a peppery, rusty-red homemade tomato sauce and served with stunning potato pancakes — and schnitzels stuffed with pork or chicken in coatings of buttery, crispy goodness (the chicken made especially scrumptious thanks to Brie and flavorful ham). And if you order the occasional pierogi special, you will be rewarded with homemade, melt-in-your-mouth dumplings topped with crispy bits of bacon and filled with mushrooms and sauerkraut, perhaps butternut squash, maybe meat — whatever Gabrielsson's made that day. She will ask you how you like them, even though she knows the answer by the way you are grinning.
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There are sides, too. Several of them. Most entrées come with your choice of four, which, in addition to the main dishes' portion size, may explain the lack of an appetizer section. They include a very sour sauerkraut, a simple and simply-addicting grated potato dish called rösti, once eaten for breakfast by Swiss farmers, dill-covered mashed and creamy potatoes, and some of the best homemade cole slaw I have ever had.
No matter how full you may be, passing up desserts at Beaver Choice would be a mistake — just look inside the bakery case. There are Scandinavian-style treats like "beaver balls," sweet orbs of oatmeal and chocolate with coconut sprinkles; sticky, flat oatmeal cookies filled with lemon cream; and a deceptively light (in weight, not in calories) layered creation called Beaver Supreme, made with slabs of meringue, oranges, and whipped cream.
And when you tell Gabrielsson she easily could charge two or three dollars more for food this unique, this satisfying, she will look surprised — then wave you away, laughing. Later she will bring out samples of a new bread she wants to try or spend time telling you about the soups she's working on for fall. Because you, like the lucky few who know about Beaver Choice, are now part of her family, which means you understand there may be longer wait times for made-to-order dishes, and that her biological family, the ones who run Beaver Choice with her (and are just as friendly), cannot always get to your table quickly when there is a rush.
After all, that's what the Uno cards over the fake fireplace next to the children's drawings are for.