A few years ago, I moved to a historic district near downtown Phoenix, figuring that the best way to support the city's renaissance was to live here, shop here, and eat here, frequenting the small, locally owned joints that dot the landscape. But the dots were few and far between, so I was prepared to have to leave my 'hood most days to get a great lunch or a killer cup of coffee, figuring that, eventually, something would land near me. And so I've become accustomed to the notion that a huge swath of the city center is my neighborhood, and think nothing of making a 20-minute crosstown trek, especially if good food is involved.
Even light-rail construction can't hold me back.
But something funny happened on my way across town. Amid all my driving around, new businesses began cropping up just blocks away from home. Maybe not walking distance on a hot July day, but certainly just around the proverbial corner. In particular, a lot's been going on near the corner of Seventh Street and Sheridan. The minimalist-mod Drip Coffee Lounge set up shop in a tiny strip of old storefronts, while a couple of doors down, a chic little Belgian place called Trente-Cinq 35 opened for dinner. And since good things come in threes, it hardly seems a coincidence that Lisa G Cafe Wine Bar joined them a few months ago at what's been dubbed Sheridan Square.
For as much as Phoenix is known for its sprawl of strip malls it's no revelation that some of the best eateries in town are tucked away in them it's also becoming a very Phoenix thing to have a restaurant in a house. Situated in a cozy Coronado bungalow that used to be Ye Old Sandwich Shoppe, Lisa G reminds me of other intimate, homey spots I love, like Fate, Coronado Café, Cibo, Bar Bianco. It never occurred to me that this is a homegrown trend (pun intended) until my first lunch at Lisa G, when one of my relatives, visiting from Philly, commented on how different it was something you wouldn't see much in cities back East.
Walk in the front door, and you're in the living room, where a half-dozen cube seats surround a rectangular metal table, and a grade-school-era photo of the owner herself, Lisa Giungo, hangs above the fireplace. Off to the left, by the kitchen, there's a small room with a pearly green bar, and beyond the living room is an airy dining space with lots of windows, shiny, chocolate-colored wood floors, framed family photos on the walls, and a tall, pale green banquette along the back. It has a clean, modern look, like a page torn from the West Elm furniture catalogue. The entire place seats about 45 people, max, but starting in the fall, the front patio will accommodate another 50.
I thought Giungo looked familiar, and later realized why. Before opening her namesake cafe, Lisa G honed her restaurant management skills at such places as La Grande Orange, My Florist, and City Bakery. No doubt those experiences taught her that you don't need an elaborate menu to get diners in droves; just make them crave a special salad or unique sandwich and they'll come back. Giungo's inspired creations definitely do the job.
Case in point: the steak salad. One of my friends had tried it before, and couldn't resist ordering it again when she returned with me. I instantly understood why when the waitress brought her dish. Even before I tried a few bites, I perked up from the rich smell of warm strip steak and balsamic vinaigrette. Extremely fresh, tender baby spinach leaves, crunchy haricots verts, pine nuts, cherry tomatoes, and crumbles of Point Reyes blue cheese rounded out the generous, entree-size salad. It would've gone great with a glass of Cabernet, but since it was a workday, we both tried the Cricket diet green tea cola (sounds odd, but it was refreshing and not too sugary).
The tuna salad was outstanding, but not in a way you'd expect. Here, chunks of albacore tuna were tossed with greens, white beans, capers, slivers of roasted red pepper, kalamata olives, and red onion, and the whole thing was lightly dressed in a creamy vinaigrette with just enough Dijon to make my cheeks tingle. I couldn't stop eating it.
On a different day, I don't know whether I was hooked at the mere mention of garlic butter or melted fontina in the description of the Juno sandwich, but no matter. They made one amazing combination with breaded chicken, which was chopped and served with herb oil and sweet caramelized onions on a fresh ciabatta roll.
Lisa G's bread comes from MJ Bread (the artisan bakery run by M.J. Coe, whose wife is the fondant goddess behind Tammie Coe Cakes), and it's some of the best in town. When I tried the innocent-sounding chicken sandwich moist chunks of meat with plump dried cranberries, lettuce, spinach, hazelnuts, celery, and mayo I was dazzled by soft, thick slices of whole grain poppy-seed bread. Even the Mini Sandwiches, a mix-and-match combo of three baseball-size finger foods (sesame-crusted ahi, shaved beef tenderloin, peppered turkey, or the above-mentioned chicken), came on good crusty bread. I also gobbled up the wedge of chewy, sea-salty focaccia that came with a chunk of cheese alongside Lisa's Bowl of Balls.
That's right, balls as in homemade, secret-family-recipe Italian meatballs made from ground beef, pork, and veal. Three big ones landed on our table piping hot, slathered in herb-flecked marinara, and dusted with Parmesan. I loved them straight-up and dunked in tomato sauce, but you can also order them Grinder-style, on focaccia with melted provolone.
The dinner menu has a lot of the lunch offerings, with a few extras. (Prices don't go up at night, either; everything is around 8 to 11 bucks.) I couldn't wait to get my hands and my mouth on the eggplant, zucchini, and blue-cheese-filled empanadas, which arrived fragrant and flaky, with a side of pesto for dipping. Meanwhile, the Brie bruschetta was truly as sinful as a dessert. There were two large slices to a plate, with creamy cheese; fat, dried cranberries; and crisp, thin slices of apple covered in caramelized sugar, à la crème brûlée.
A couple weeks ago on a Friday night, Lisa G was filled with casual, stylish young couples sipping wine, and a big table of friendly guys next to me was raving about one of the specials, a luscious banana caramel panna cotta. Service was swift, lighting was soft. It was unpretentious but very, very cool. The air was filled with delicious smells, electronic beats, and laughter.
I felt right at home.
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