Man, the Bible says, cannot live by bread alone. But if you grew up in this town, or came here more than five years ago, you certainly haven't needed to take Saint Matthew's word for it.
That's because, until quite recently, you stood as much chance of finding a decent loaf of bread in the Valley as you did finding a local branch of Mensa in the Arizona Legislature.
But even though the apostle understood that you can't live by bread alone, the Good Book elsewhere recognizes that you can't live without it: "Give us this day our daily bread."
It's the same prayer I uttered when I got here in 1990. At that time, the local bakery scene was sorry enough to make a bread lover weep. Occasionally, I'd drive to one of the handful of ethnic bakeries that carried fresh rye bread or Mexican rolls. But like everyone else, for daily needs, I had to make do with mushy, tasteless, God-awful, plastic-wrapped supermarket bread.
Things started changing in 1994, when a family of transplanted Ohioans opened the Arizona Bread Company. Bread-starved Phoenicians found just what they had been missing: great, crusty, European-style loaves that initially left the competition gasping in the dust.
But not for long. Just as the Coffee Plantation ignited a coffee-house explosion a decade ago, the pioneering Arizona Bread Company set off a bakery boom. These days, there's no shortage of savvy entrepreneurs who realize that selling fresh-baked bread in this market is a good way to roll in the dough.
I've just completed a bread tour, checking out six bakeries. For consistency's sake, I did all my shopping and sampling between 11 a.m. and noon, when the bread should have been at its best. What did I find? For the most part, on this Thanksgiving holiday, Valley bread fans now have something to be genuinely thankful for.
Wildflower Bread Company, Sonora Village Shopping Center, 15640 North Pima Road, Scottsdale, 991-5180. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
No bread lover will complain about making the drive to north Scottsdale to this fabulous bakery. Just a year old, this place puts out some of the finest loaves in the Mountain Time Zone. It's hard to know where to begin heaping praise. The pane Pugliese, a Saturday special fashioned with wheat, rye and olive oil, is a triumph of flavor, crust and texture. The sun-dried-tomato bread is bursting with herbs and tomato. The nine-grain loaf is complexly rich with the taste of millet, flax, sesame and a hint of honey. The caraway-flecked rye is darn near perfect, not too heavy, not too light, with a crust to die for. Cinnamon raisin walnut bread is irresistibly sweet and fruity. If you're craving a baguette, go for the rustic version, which is chewier than the regular French baguette. Let's hope Wildflower reconsiders and puts the discontinued goat cheese sourdough back into the bread rotation--I adored its scent of garlic and pieces of roasted red pepper.
And although the eggplant-and-feta baguette is more a sandwich than bread--it's a half-baguette, sliced lengthwise, topped with grilled eggplant, feta, pesto and a mound of roasted garlic--it's phenomenal. I could eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Bigio Breadworks, Hilton Village, 6107 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 951-9786. Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week.
This bakery is part of the Country Glazed Ham operation, and it may be the best-kept bread secret in town. The well-crafted breads here are big-league all the way. There's certainly no better baguette in the Valley--the one here delivers a dynamite combination of chewiness and crustiness. It's easy to make a meal out of the Sicilian pepper cheese bread, with its mild green peppers and big veins of Cheddar spread throughout. The sesame semolina is light and crunchy, and surprisingly high on flavor. If you're looking for a bread to pair with a winter soup, grab the rustic herb cheese; it's wonderfully seasoned and will stick to your ribs. The olive rosemary loaf has absolutely no shortcomings, perfectly blending taste and texture. The San Francisco sourdough is also dead-on, delivering the familiar tangy sourdough snap.
If you like your bread studded with fruit, consider the dense raisin walnut. But the real winner in this category is the breathtaking cranberry orange bread. Put it on your Christmas-dinner menu--this is as good as it gets.
Arizona Bread Company, 7000 East Shea, Scottsdale (also 4025 East Chandler Boulevard, Phoenix), 948-8338. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Arizona Bread Company shows no sign of slowing down or just going through the motions. Many of the breads here still put me in a swoon. The unbelievable Italian olive bread--crusty, chewy and thick with plump, juicy olives--divinely marries taste and texture. The baguette is lovely, subtly flavored with just the right chewiness. You can smell the rosemary the minute you cut into the Italian rosemary loaf. The bold chile cheese bread, studded with zesty jalapenos, gives your tongue a pleasing tingle. At other bakeries, nine-grain bread can often turn out leaden. But the first-rate model here, blended with oats, corn, rye and buckwheat, won't sink to your stomach like a stone. I also like the honey wheatberry bread, crunchy and a bit sweet.
If you're looking for a breakfast bread, check out the substantial apricot walnut, heavy with dried fruit and nuts. For lunch, sit down with a wedge of right-out-of-the-oven focaccia. My one (small) disappointment here? It's the sourdough. The baker prefers not to make it in tangy San Francisco fashion, which is the way I prefer it. The flavor in this version is a little too understated for me.
BreadCrafters Bakery & Cafe, 12635 North Tatum, Phoenix, 494-4442. Hours: Monday through Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
When BreadCrafters is good, it's not only very, very good, it's terrific. But you have to know what to order.
I have no second thoughts announcing that the Tuscan ciabatta ranks among the single best breads I've had anywhere, ever. It's a flat, crusty loaf, with a chewy but not heavy interior. Dip it in olive oil, or pair it with a hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and you'll enter bread nirvana. The Alsatian loaf is another winning specialty, a full-bodied multigrain bread deftly studded with sunflower and toasted sesame seeds. I was told the raisin walnut bread is a big seller, and one bite of this crusty, big-flavored beauty will show you why. The green chile pistachio bread is a clever idea nicely executed, a light wheat loaf zipped up with crunchy nuts and zingy chile. The semolina bread also works, with its delicate crust and soft, light interior tinged with olive oil.
The Berkeley sourdough, however, didn't have the tang it ought to have had. Though the rye bread had a deep rye flavor, I prefer a chewy, German-style rye. This model's interior is too mushy for my taste. And the baguette is a letdown. It's simply not in the same league as the town's best models--the texture's not right.
Rating: VERY GOOD
Loveland Bread, 10050 West Bell, Sun City, 815-0998. Hours: Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
If you're looking for crusty, chewy, brick-oven, artisanal breads, Loveland is not where you should be looking. The breads here are more like the ones Mom used to bake. These easy-on-the-jaws loaves rely more on taste than on texture for their appeal.
The Irish soda bread is outstanding, heavy with the flavors of buttermilk, eggs, margarine and raisins. Challah, a traditional Jewish egg bread eaten on Fridays, is good enough to have come from my old neighborhood. The Russian rye has a hint of molasses, and delivers lots of old-world taste. The innocuous nine-grain and whole-wheat breads, however, work better when they're toasted.
The tomato salsa bread didn't do much for me. You can't miss the tomato, basil and oregano, and there's a definite salsa kick. But the lack of texture ruins the effect. The delicately scented orange poppy bread does a much better job combining taste and texture. The pumpkin bread, meanwhile, actually crosses the line between bread and cake. But there's no sense getting hung up over semantics about something so enjoyable.
Loveland likes to slice and plastic-wrap some of its breads. But the bread doesn't benefit from either. Ask for one of the unsliced, unwrapped models on the bakery trays behind the counter.
Big Sky Bread Company, 3717 East Indian School, Phoenix (also 23587 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale), 553-8553. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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There's no getting around it--Big Sky is a big disappointment. Most breads in this franchise operation come wrapped in plastic. This is good if shelf life is your number-one priority. It's not mine.
The spinach feta bread is mushy and bland. The challah has too much yeast and too little egg. The Wyoming sourdough is also too yeasty, with no perceptible sourdough oomph. The most notable characteristic of the sourdough rye is its sponginess. The unimpressive multigrain bread is dull, and as heavy as a bar of plutonium. There's nothing special about the baguette, either, which is too light and lacks proper texture.
Two breads offer partial redemption. The rosemary bread, with its hint of olive oil, brings chewy satisfaction, although the crust needs work. The whole-wheat fruit bread is by far the best item I sampled here, rich with moist berries and walnuts.