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A Love Bovine

Calico Cow is on the mooove to bring us more comfort food.
Jackie Mercandetti

Let's get one thing straight. I've got strict expectations for high-end eateries -- spotless ambiance, spotless service, and, of course, spotless food to go along with the spotless silverware. I'm paying big bucks for perfect, and am quick to complain if I receive anything less.

But funky can be a good thing in an inexpensive, family-run eating establishment. The weirder the place is, often, the better the adventure. Why? Because I've often found that the chef-owner is focusing so hard on the cooking that he or she can't be bothered to make sure all the furniture matches. It's fun to discover a place no one knows about, since that makes us cool, but it also usually means the talent is residing in the kitchen, not out working the PR circuit. What the owner is saving on high rent and expensive Villeroy & Boch tableware means bargain menu prices for us. And usually, these offbeat places are run by truly creative types, who imbue their wacky personalities into our dining experience.

Calico Cow Cafe proves my point. This place is as homely as they come. Though it's been around for 12 years, in all that time the central Phoenix restaurant has never evolved past owner Susan Greenhalgh's dream of an ultra-casual down-home place where she can cook for "friends." That means we're in for quite a bit of informality. We dig ice for our drinks out of an Igloo cooler on a counter, and appliances look more like they came from a surplus store than Sur la Table. There's no air conditioning.

Yet Calico Cow is an absolute joy. The food -- a comfort menu of old-time American favorites -- is as good as it gets. (And cautious diners can relax. Despite the "udder chaos," as a sign on the wall jokes, Maricopa County Health Services is quite pleased with the cafe -- just check out the quality ratings on the Web site at maricopa.gov.)

Calico Cow has a small but dedicated following. Business is strictly word of mouth; the spot has never gotten much media attention, and that's a shame. Likely lots of us have driven right past it without ever realizing there's such an interesting cafe housed in a beat-up shop next to an ancient-looking appliance repair store. The place is tiny -- it used to hold just one table for communal dining of about 10; then, a few years ago, a wall was knocked down for a couple more tables. I like how stacks of books and magazines line the walls, ours for the sharing, and the only real attempt at decor: a clutter of cow-themed knickknacks everywhere.

I drag my dining buddy in one day, and he's skeptical. But with one glance at the menu, and one whiff of freshly baked homemade pie, he's mine. There's nothing fancy here, just a short list of sandwiches, soups and desserts reminiscent of a 1950s cookbook. Chicken noodle soup. Meat loaf. Chicken salad. Classic desserts, like brownies, banana pudding, cookies and pies. Daily specials take me back to my school cafeteria days -- or what I wish they'd been, as prepared by a professional cook -- with delights like Sloppy Joes with corn on the cob, potato salad and pineapple upside down cake.

Most everything is homemade, including bread, and I even know the guy who supplies the produce. He's Greg Peterson, the owner of Urban Farm, a visionary who has planted his 80-by-160-foot home plot near 12th Street and Glendale Avenue with every kind of organic fruit and vegetable we can imagine. (How dedicated to purity is the guy? Pet hens produce eggs and natural fertilizer.)

And what is this, an episode of The Andy Griffith Show? The staff knows all the regulars by name -- really, when the mail carrier stops in around 11 a.m., they fix her a specialty sandwich from her favorite off-the-menu recipe, and toss in some of her favorite shortbread cookies ("We remember what you like," assures cook Margie, when the postal employee can't recall if it was bacon she so craved with her jalapeños). If it weren't so sincere, the gushing pleasantry might actually be too cute for me.

Meat loaf is a signature dish, and for good reason. There's nothing to this version, and that's what makes it marvelous. It comes as a sandwich, sliced in thick slabs and served cold between sourdough, with leaf lettuce, tomato, provolone and mayo. A sip of chicken noodle soup and my buddy is smiling, taken with the rich broth, slippery wide noodles, corn, carrots, celery, peas, green beans and lots of shredded meat. Almost as pleasing is the fat-free chili, ladled with tons of white onion, kidney beans, ground beef and Cheddar. The chili loses points because there's no spice -- but Tabasco solves that problem nicely.

It doesn't matter that we often have to order at the counter, when the result is a lovely sandwich of real (not processed and pressed) turkey on crisp, pita-like ciabatta with homemade cranberry sauce, or deli-quality roast beef on a croissant with provolone, avocado and a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette. Slow service? Who cares, if we get a gooey, hot all-white tuna melt on sourdough with Cheddar, or grilled baked ham on seeded rye with Swiss and apricot mustard? A chef's salad is more than just a mountain of mixed greens, meat, hard-boiled egg and tomato -- it's the generous amounts of top-level turkey, ham, Cheddar and Swiss that make the difference. And only my mom makes better egg salad than this dish, both chunky and creamy, dusted with dill and scooped onto my choice of nine-grain and layered with alfalfa sprouts, tomato, lettuce and provolone.

Calico Cow isn't open for dinner, but it will prepare takeout with a day's notice. Servings are family-size and change with the days: Tuesday's meat loaf with mashed potatoes, green beans and gravy; Thursday's pot roast with potatoes, carrots and gravy. I pick up a roasted chicken that reheats nicely for my supper, the bird blanketed in rosemary and paired with roasted potatoes or zucchini, coleslaw and brown rolls. The carcass finds its way to my cooking pot later, rendering a fine stock for my own home-style cooking attempts.

Is it any surprise that a place like this crafts outrageously good pie? With fresh-from-the-oven apple, Dutch apple, rhubarb, peach, mincemeat, pumpkin, pecan, berry and Shaker lemon, it's tough to choose. There are even sugar-free options that taste close to the real thing, thanks to the marvel of Splenda, that no-calorie sweetener designed specifically for baked goods.

I don't have to ask twice to get my buddy to join me for a Calico breakfast. He's happy with his sausage gravy and biscuits with scrambled eggs and three strips of bacon. A breakfast croissant with three eggs, cheese, ham or bacon is a hearty way to start the day; another trip's special of French toast is light, fluffy stuff. "Doesn't get much better," my buddy says, his lips sticky with syrup.

But it does. Greenhalgh just keeps the charm coming. For her recent 51st birthday present, she tells me, she treated herself to cooking classes at Phoenix College. By her 55th birthday, she plans to graduate from the culinary sciences college at Arizona State University.

And she's finally ready to evolve her eatery. Sometime next year, she plans to upgrade her little cafe to a new space (air-conditioned, thank you) at the former Top of Central bistro space at Central north of Northern. She'll be expanding to offering early dinners (sit-down, happily), perhaps with such classics as baked spaghetti, chicken Diane, and chicken and dumplings. The new space will allow her to relocate her catering commissary from the kitchen of a north Phoenix topless bar, and offer banquet service.

Greenhalgh promises that the bigger menu and fancier digs won't affect the quality of her cooking. Okay. But let's hope that she still keeps things funky. I'd have to complain if I got anything less.


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