There are two times of the year I can't get enough of alfresco eating: October-November and March-April. I'm not alone in this. I know there are others out there. Maybe you're a year-round citizen like myself, just recovering from cabin fever. Or perhaps you've just returned from some lovely green place where you spend your summers: To you, Arizona is synonymous with phrases like "Nice weather, isn't it?" and "Let's eat on the patio!" Or maybe this is your first visit and you think it's like this year-round. (Excuse me while I guffaw.)
At any rate, the picnic mood is upon me. Bring your sunscreen, if you wish, and join me. Our first stop is the Picknic Trapp on North Marshall Way in Scottsdale.
The Picknic Trapp used to be called Picknicken. The menu and location are the same; I'm told the only changes are the owners and the name. My dining accomplice and I visit for lunch on a beautiful Tuesday in late October. The temperature is slightly higher than what I'd term "ideal," but anything less than 100 degrees becomes acceptable after a while. After parking, we approach the corner of Third Avenue and North Marshall Way on foot. Most of the restaurant's dining area is outside, and threads back between two buildings at this intersection. Screened shade is provided. We enter the storefront to ask if there is table service. When we're told there is, we grab menus, return outside, select a table for two and sit. I like the blue-and-white-checked tablecloths and the matching striped chairs. A young waitress comes over to us. When we explain that we're not ready, she takes our drink order and leaves us alone for a few minutes. This gives us time to study the menu and contemplate the specials listed on a nearby display board.
With no clue as to portion sizes, we each decide to order the picnic for one, which includes soup, salad or fresh fruit, any sandwich and a homemade cookie. We also request the chicken salad--as a salad, not a sandwich--and today's special tuna-broccoli salad. Prices seem a little high, but this is gallery row in Scottsdale, after all.
Looking around, I observe that our fellow picnickers fall into four basic categories: tony gallery employees, well-dressed shoppers, casual businessmen and foreign visitors. My accomplice and I have just come from a quick tour of the zoo. Our casual attitudes and attire make us the exception here. No, that's not true. The foreign visitors are clad just like us. Their cameras make them look more dressed up. Our picnic is delivered to our table in a lined wooden picnic basket. Everything, save my accomplice's tossed salad, is neatly stacked inside. I'm especially charmed that the individual halves of our sandwiches are wrapped in wax paper. It makes it so much easier to share. Suddenly, I feel like I'm on a real old-fashioned picnic, the kind where choosing one's sandwich is a major part of the fun.
But first things first. My accomplice tackles his salad; I savor my spicy beef soup. On looks alone, the salad is above average. It features leaf lettuce, carrot slices, red cabbage, cucumber and cauliflower. Honey-mustard dressing is sweet, but dignified.
The spicy beef soup is surprising. Though the spices are not particularly incendiary, the dish still wins me over. I had expected something creamy and gloppy. Instead, I am served a vegetable-beef soup with a thin red broth and loads of vegetables and new potatoes. If the weather were a little cooler, I would gobble down the whole container. As it is, I can't finish it. I'm too hot.
I begin to nosh in earnest on one-half of the vegetarian sandwich. Homemade whole wheat bread provides a firm foundation for the leaf lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, cucumber, tomato, avocado and thin-sliced dofino and cheddar cheeses that make up the filling. I approve the freshness of all the ingredients and the sturdiness of the lovely bread. Which brings me to an important point. The bread is Paul Bunyan size here. Half of one slice equals one whole slice of, say, Pepperidge Farm bread. When you look at it this way, one sandwich at the Picknic Trapp is really two sandwiches. I quickly realize we'll be bringing food home with us.
I convince my accomplice to trade sandwich halves with me. "This way we can try both of them," I cajole. Sadly, the pink smoked turkey and creamy dofino cheese sandwich on homemade sourdough bread nullifies my victory. Compared with the hearty vegetarian sandwich, these fillings seem chintzy. Plus, I'm not pleased with the homemade sourdough. The thick slices taste like plain old doughy white bread. I tire of it quickly.
I'm happy with the special salad of the day, tuna-broccoli--though my dining accomplice sees nothing special about it. I admire the addition of rotini pasta and tomato. I also like the texture of the fresh broccoli flowerettes contrasted with the large flakes of albacore. Dill mayonnaise is the perfect dressing. The portion is most generous.
But the chicken salad disapppoints me. When compared with our large serving of tuna-broccoli salad, it looks like we got gypped. (I know, I know. "Consistency is the hobgoblin," et cetera. But . . . ) Furthermore, the salad is overloaded with celery. The moral? Have a chicken salad sandwich, not a chicken salad. Let the Paul Bunyan scale work in your favor.
The courtyard is clearing out. It's time for tony gallery workers to return to their professional smiling. They check their lipstick and watch for smudges on the teeth. The foreign visitors left en masse a while ago. Piled into a van and pulled away.
We are not eating with such relish anymore. We ask our waitress to pack the remains of our meal into a bag for us. But we still have room for our cookies!
Earlier, my accomplice had questioned the value of a dozen homemade cookies for $6.50. But that price begins to sound darn reasonable after we taste the crisp peanut butter cookie and moist ginger cookie with cream icing. What a fine way to end a picnic.
The Picknic Trapp does a lot of things right. They pay attention to presentation. They use fresh ingredients. Their baked goods are very good. Yes, the sourdough bread could be more sour and less doughy, but on the whole, you get your money's worth here.
Who knows? If the weather holds out, I might become a regular.
On the other hand, the Picnic Company, located in a stylish Eighties strip mall between Rural and McClintock on University in Tempe, is something of a brainteaser. Who, I keep wondering, is meant to form the core clientele of this establishment?
Students? The prices are too high.
Business people? Cornerstone Mall is closer to the University Center office complex than this place.
Drive-by trade? You have to be looking for the Picnic Company to know it's there.
Plus, a half-leased strip mall does not lend itself to the same kind of convenient walk-in trade as chichi "gallery row" in Scottsdale. So students from neighboring apartment complexes may make or break the Picnic Company. Students with bucks to burn. Lunch for two, with chips, drinks and maybe dessert or soup, clocks in at $15 both times I visit the Picnic Company. Sandwiches start at four dollars here. This seems like a lot of money to me. When I was a full-time student--not so long ago--spending this much for lunch was definitely for special occasions. Yet, the place is full of students, mostly young men, whenever I stop by. Go figure.
The cheerful decor at the Picnic Company is similar to its Scottsdale cousin's. Blue and white figure prominently. Tablecloths are blue and white checks; tables and chairs are white plastic. The food doesn't come in picnic baskets, but baskets are used for decoration and are available for purchase. Amazingly, there is no outside dining.
My first picnic from the Picnic Company is "to go." I order a turkey sandwich on sourdough with the complimentary "works" (lettuce, tomato, cucumber, avocado, alfalfa sprouts, red onion, mayonnaise, champagne mustard and dofino cheese) and a tuna salad on whole wheat with sprouts and lettuce. I call ahead and when I arrive, my order is assembled. We exchange money for food and I'm history.
I like the turkey sandwich a lot. The sourdough is as it should be: hard crusted, airy, sour. The turkey, dofino and fixings are plentiful. It is a sandwich you can eat in one sitting--preferably on a blanket under the shade of some mature foliage.
My picnic accomplice's tuna sandwich is a bit fancy. That unusual crunchy texture can be attributed to water chestnuts. This, for a meat-and-potatoes kind of eater. I mean, mayo and tuna alone would have pleased him.
A side of potato salad proves too sweet for either of us.
We share dessert. A chocolate chip cheesecake brownie is rich, but I'm not complaining. A strawberry muffin is large and generous with moist berries.
Although pricey, the "to go" picnic has to be called a moderate success.
I return the following Saturday with a different picnic accomplice. This time we eat in the restaurant and sample from the "unique picnic sandwich" menu. We also order soup and what appears to be roasted pepper salad with feta cheese.
Wrong. Try peppers marinated in olive oil with cubes of cream cheese. What a letdown. It has the right look, but the wrong tastes, like California black olives instead of some piquantly Mediterranean, like calamata.
There are two types of soup today: broccoli-cheese and chicken with wild rice, served in a round of sourdough bread or in a bowl. I order the latter in a bowl, but when it comes, I am sure there's been a mistake. The soup in front of me is thick and creamy. Where is the rice? The chicken?
"Oh, no," our server assures me. "That's the chicken with wild rice."
It's pleasant tasting and hot, but totally indistinguishable from any other thick cream soup. I never do find any rice. It must have disintegrated.
Of the two sandwiches we order today, I prefer the vegetarian picnic. Its contents are the same as the Picknic Trapp's version, with the addition of Swiss cheese, sunflower seeds and blue cheese dressing, but the bread is woefully inferior. It is not up to the task of holding this wholesome combination together and breaks apart under the pressure.
For $4.45, the California picnic is criminally small. Bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado and melted cheddar cheese hide between two slices of well-toasted sourdough. You know, I take back what I said about the turkey and dofino seeming chintzy at the Picknic Trapp. Now this--this is really chintzy.
In addition to what I have a chance to sample, the Picnic Company sells salads and yogurt, herbal tea and cappuccino. No, the problem here isn't the menu. The problem is location and pricing.
A gloomy forecast for a cute place. But nobody ever said the road to success would be a picnic. The Picknic Trapp, 4151 North Marshall Way, Scottsdale, 946-5930. Hours: Light breakfast, 8:30 to 11 a.m., Monday through Saturday; Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., depending on demand; 7 to 9 p.m., Thursdays during Art Walk. Closed Sunday.
The Picnic Company, 1415 East University, Suite #101A, Tempe, 968-7740. Hours: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.
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Maybe this is your first visit to Phoenix and you think the weather's like this year-round. Excuse me while I guffaw.
Suddenly, I feel like I'm on a real old-fashioned picnic, the kind where choosing one's sandwich is a major part of the fun.
It's time for tony gallery workers to return to their professional smiling. They check their lipstick.
When it comes, I am sure there's been a mistake. The soup in front of me is thick and creamy. Where is the rice? The chicken?