So now it looks like the government may require warning labels on pretzels: "May cause choking and/or fainting." Thanks, President Bush.
If pretzels do require warnings, then one of the safest places in town to consume them is at Walker's Cafe in downtown Phoenix. Some of the restaurant's most loyal fans include members of the Phoenix Fire Department, brave firefighters trained to perform the Heimlich maneuver and CPR.
Representatives of the fire and police departments were on hand for Walker's grand opening in early December. They volunteered to serve breakfast to guests in exchange for donations to Phoenix's Youth at Risk charity. Police officers and firefighters handed out tasty early-morning fare such as breakfast sandwiches (scrambled eggs, Canadian bacon and Swiss on a bagel or croissant), breakfast pizza (scrambled eggs, bacon, cheese and salsa on focaccia) and bagels with nova lox, cream cheese, capers, onion and tomato. They also served Krispy Kreme donuts and Walker's specialty: handmade soft pretzels.
And maybe these pretzels do need a warning, because Walker's pretzels almost make me faint. Not from choking, but because they're simply marvelous. Steamy hot, cloaked with coarse salt and pulled in pliant, chewy mouthfuls, they're almost sensual.
Preparing pretzels could be considered a step down for Walker's chef Stephanie Schutz, considering her background as owner of a personal chef and catering business, plus stints at Mary Elaine's and Christopher's. Yet the passion that propelled her to success at these fine restaurants translates perfectly into the doughy knots. If she's going to take the time to roll dough into twisty loops, they're going to be the best twisty loops to be found.
The other half of the Walker's crew is owner Sandra Brooks, also owner of a coffee house and deli in Terminal 2 at Sky Harbor Airport. Together, Schutz and Brooks have created a terrific little oasis for downtown diners, unrolling an uncomplicated but expertly executed menu of sandwiches, salads, soups, pizza and a daily hot entree special (bow-tie pasta with chicken, carnitas and the like).
Part of Walker's charm comes from its location, occupying the bottom floor of the newly renovated J.W. Walker Building on the northwest corner of Third Avenue and Washington. Originally built in 1920, the property sat vacant for years and saw the shadow of a wrecking ball several times. Demolition would have been such a waste, to reduce to rubble a rare example of Greek revival architecture, the boxy shape piped with elaborate columns and birthday-cake-fancy carvings. The building had noble tenants during its early life, including J.C. Penney, Central Arizona Light and Power Company, Arizona Edison, Arizona Public Service, the City of Phoenix, and a labor union. Now the building is forever safe, protected by its National Register of Historic Places designation.
Not much has been done to spruce up the cafe itself, the decor relying on large black-and-white prints of old-time Phoenix against rough concrete walls painted yellow. Orders are taken at a corrugated steel-fronted counter. When our number is called, we retrieve our tray and march to a wooden table inside, or marble-look plastic tables on two patios outside. I love the patios -- perfect for people-watching along Washington, and in the gardens facing the new City of Phoenix Municipal Court. These people are busy, scurrying by with important-looking documents and briefcases, speaking seemingly into space but actually on those irritating cell-phone headsets.
I could sit here for hours, nibbling on a superb pretzel dog. A frank, juicy with beef liquor, is good enough on its own, but when wrapped in a golden bundle of pretzel, it's nirvana. Velvety cheese dip is a good, gooey extra, and for dessert, a pretzel arrives lavishly sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.
Walker's takes advantage of its courthouse proximity, with creative titles for the dishes. A Legislature Wrap-Up is basically a chicken wrap, but what could be a boring breast becomes delightful, featuring tangy Caesar dressing, real Parmesan, crunchy romaine and a garlic herb tortilla. The Wrap Sheet is a winner, too, stuffing a chipotle tortilla with plenty of chicken, roasted-corn and black-bean salsa, romaine and a spirited chipotle sauce. And the Mayor's Classic Caesar deserves re-election for its homemade garlic croutons and careful chop of crisp romaine (none of those big, ungainly leaves that require a knife and fork to fit in the mouth).
Two other salads show Schutz's upscale roots. Even at just $5.95, the Suns' Shazam loads on deli-worthy ham and Swiss, adorned with black olives, artichoke hearts, tomatoes and a well-balanced Dijon vinaigrette. Walker's house salad isn't a timid toss either, but a classy clutch of field greens, grilled portabella, shaved fennel, toasted pine nuts, cucumber and carrots in a light vinaigrette kissed with Chenin Blanc.
It's surprising that Walker's doesn't utilize the nearby Willo Baking Company, but Capistrano's Bakery in Tempe delivers good stuff, too. Crusty sourdough has tart oomph, goosing up a worthwhile D'Back Stack of hickory-cured ham, Jarlsberg cheese, caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato and stone-ground mustard. A Copper Square model also earns respect, layering ample amounts of smoked turkey, Dofino cheese, lettuce, tomato and a sweet-spicy Creole cranberry spread on country hearth loaf.
No limp veggies here; sandwiches are crafted with romaine lettuce and Roma tomatoes. And the same good garden greens keep a Light Sentence enjoyable. The vegetarian sandwich assembles grilled portabella, roasted peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, tomato, basil pesto and a thick smear of cream cheese on focaccia. Partnered with ruffled potato chips and a crunchy pickle spear, the meal's as good as any meat dish.
The fire department gets a salute with a fine sandwich -- the FDFD (Fire Department French Dip). A French roll is terrific, crunchy and chewy, and thin-sliced roast beef is the real thing (not shaved imitation). With more dedication to the jus this could be a contender -- there's no body to what tastes like ordinary beef broth.
Two other sandwiches could use some minor retooling, too. A Courthouse Chicken Crunch doesn't crunch, with celery and apple diced too fine, and no hint of the promised walnut. And shredded, soupy chicken doesn't stand up to a thick ciabatta roll; chunking the breast meat would give diners more to gnaw on. A sandwich called Phoenix's Finest isn't, the albacore tuna salad so soggy with aioli that it turns potato rosemary bread sodden. Teeny blips of green and red are the only proof that the blend includes celery and red bell pepper. Both sandwiches are so close to excellent that these little faults stand out.
Soups need nothing but seconds. Concoctions are homemade, with a couple of selections available daily. Corn chowder is pure comfort food, stocking a thin, creamy base with cubed potatoes, chopped celery, kernel corn and fresh herbs. And mildly spiced tortilla soup tantalizes. Rather than the typical clear broth, this is more of a stew, brimming with chicken breast, zucchini, tomato, carrot and a crown of multicolored tortilla frizzles.
It's a good thing I don't work within walking distance of Walker's. It would be impossible to restrain from stopping in several times a day for a huge, homemade chocolate-chip cookie, an elephantine frosted brownie, a freshly baked muffin, or my most dangerous addiction, that perfect, poetic pretzel.
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