Metro Phoenix is often accused of being too suburban, but if there’s an upside to so-called urban sprawl, it’s this: There’s nearly always something new to try somewhere around town, unexplored pockets of food and culture spread across something like 2,000 square miles. Your next great meal might come out of an inconspicuous-looking strip mall restaurant that has been hanging around town for years before you discover it’s there. In other words, it might be at a place like Ezekiel’s Restaurant, a mom-and-pop soul food eatery in the Ahwatukee Palms Shopping Center at 48th Street and Warner Road, just over the freeway bridge from the monolithic IKEA store in Tempe, whose bold blue-and-yellow façade has become as much of a local landmark as nearby South Mountain.
Ezekiel’s Restaurant has been in business since 2012, and since then, it’s become the restaurant of choice for Ahwatukee locals craving home-cooked fried chicken and barbecue, and Southern sides like potato salad and collard greens. On any given week day, you’ll find Ezekiel’s co-owner and head chef Bradly Carr behind the counter of the small restaurant, juggling the usual cashier duties with the constant stream of telephone take-out orders that the restaurant receives during the height of lunch and dinner service. In between taking calls and calling out orders to the kitchen, Carr wipes down the dozen or so Formica tables inside the small, square dining room while making small talk with regulars who stop by to chat and pick up a 12-piece chicken dinner to go.
The restaurant is small and spartan and eminently laid back, the kind of place where even the dine-in orders are packaged in to-go Styrofoam containers. But it’s certainly not without its charm or character. There are framed paintings and sketches on the walls by local artists, a photo collage dedicated to the Arizona Cardinals, and squeeze bottles of hot sauce on the counter. And behind the counter, there are two beverage dispensers filled with grape and cherry Kool-Aid, and an oversize chalkboard with the menu written out in neat, dusty print. And there’s Carr himself, friendly and jocular, who takes your order and points you to the small refrigerator sitting on the counter where you can help yourself to small plastic containers of butter or tartar sauce. The refrigerator is also well-stocked with individual slices of cake and homemade mini-sweet potato pies — but you’ll get to that later.
First, there’s the matter of deciding between the fried chicken or the quarter rack of barbecue ribs for dinner (both are excellent). The fried-chicken dinner comes with two pieces — your choice of white, dark, or mixed meat — all pieces cooked to order, which is obvious the moment you lift the first hot, craggy, golden-crusted breast or wing or leg quarter to your mouth. The breading is nice and crisp and gently seasoned, fresh with that irresistible perfume of hot oil and deep-fried meat. And the meat itself is just what you might hope for: full of flavor and so juicy in places you have to reach for a napkin to keep the juices from spilling onto your lap. If you wish, you can add a few drops of the house Southern-style hot sauce, a spicy, vinegary blend that coaxes even more flavor out of the bird.
Barbecue ribs, meanwhile, are slow-cooked until they are perfectly soft and tender, so that the meat seems to fall away from the bone just by looking at it. The ribs come slathered in a pleasingly thick, dark-red sauce — there are paper towels on every table here for a reason — its flavor riding the line between sweet and savory.
A somewhat lighter option is the tilapia, two enormous filets breaded in a sandy, cornmeal crust. Like most everything else, the filets are delivered fresh out of the fryer, sheathed in a perfectly hot and crispy exterior, your first bite yielding to the soft, flaky white fish inside. And there’s catfish, if you prefer, also expertly breaded, the fish slightly sweet and dense and incredibly moist.
After a couple of meals at Ezekiel’s, you’ll know exactly what to expect from the butterflied shrimp dinner: a generous heap of jumbo shrimp, butterflied and deep-fried in a crunchy crust, the fish fleshy and sweet. And if you’re in luck, you’ll get to Ezekiel’s before the kitchen runs out of crab cakes. The two sturdy, fried patties may be slightly over-seasoned with salt, but they are also meatier and tastier than what you’ll find at some of the tony seafood palaces around town.
Of course, any traditional Southern meal wouldn’t be complete without a selection of savory, starchy, or sweet sides, and you really can’t go wrong with most of the options here. What you want for your veggies is the seasoned cabbage, the leafy greens cooked down to a tender, sweet state and punched up just enough with salt and pepper to bring them back to life. Collard greens are sweet, their natural earthy bitterness toned down a bit, but still tangy around the edges.
For your starch, you should order the homemade mac ’n’ cheese, which is not the fancy, four-cheese variety of gastropubs, but the heavy, crusty rendition reminiscent of home-baked casseroles and potluck Sundays, the noodles glued together with fistfuls of melted yellow cheese. It’s delicious, as are the house macaroni salad and potato salads, both of which are creamy and peppery. And there are baked beans, sweet and slightly soupy, and a wonderful sweet potato mash, which is nutty and capped with a thin white veil of melted marshmallow.
Speaking of sweet potatoes, there are seven homemade desserts on the Ezekiel’s menu, including six different types of cake and the aforementioned mini-sweet potato pies, all made by Carr’s wife, Laurita, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband. Her sweet potato pies might be the tastiest thing inside the restaurant’s dessert-laden countertop refrigerator. They are sweet and subtly spiced, the kind of food that will probably launch vivid, intractable yearnings for Thanksgiving. A close runner-up is the peanut butter and chocolate cake — the frosting, especially, is intensely smooth and nutty in flavor. It will linger in your memory for days to come.
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Once you discover Ezekiel’s Restaurant, it will be hard to resist coming back to revisit the wonders of its fried chicken, or barbecue, or homemade mac ’n’ cheese, for that matter. And if you live in the neighborhood, congratulations. Your next great meal is just around the corner.
4825 East Warner Road
Fried chicken dinner $9.99
Barbecue ribs dinner $12.99
Crab cakes $12.99
Sweet potato pie $2.99