When chef Doug Robson opened his hip, contemporary Mexican spot Gallo Blanco Cafe a little more than a year ago, it was clear that he'd nailed a prime location at the Clarendon Hotel. There, he could serve hungry hotel guests while also building the restaurant's reputation as an appealing hangout for denizens of CenPho.
In his latest endeavor, though, Robson's going strictly for the locals.
Hillside Spot, a fast-casual American eatery in a former Coffee Plantation in Ahwatukee, is not set in a bustling urban center and doesn't have much competition from flavor-of-the-moment indie restaurants. Down here, on this stretch of Warner Road, the feel is more suburban, with strip malls and chain restaurants and none of the scenester contingent you'd find downtown, in Arcadia, or in Old Town Scottsdale. It seems almost counterintuitive for a well-known player in the Valley culinary world to pick this area for a new business.
Michele Laudig's cafe
4740 East Warner Road
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
"Hit the Spot" pancakes: $7
Pulled pork sandwich: $7
Derby salad: $8
Spaghetti and meatballs: $13
And this is why I think Robson's a pretty smart guy. He's truly filling a need in this part of town, where comfy, independently owned neighborhood joints aren't easy to come by, but there are plenty of residents eager to spend disposable income on breakfast, lunch, dinner, or just a glass of wine and snacks. From the looks of the airy, open dining room (and even at a few umbrella tables on the patio, in the middle of summer), Hillside Spot is already quite the place to be in Ahwatukee.
La Grande Orange, on the edge of Arcadia, seems to be the obvious inspiration for this restaurant. But while LGO has a magical kind of mojo — to-die-for English muffins, Tammie Coe cupcakes, quirky wines, irresistible gourmet and gift items, an adjoining pizzeria — Hillside Spot could use more oomph in that department.
As at LGO, there's a spacious open kitchen here where you can see a small army of cooks taking care of biz. Menu items are written on a big chalkboard hanging above the counter where they take your order (unless you visit at dinnertime, when there's a waitstaff to serve you at your table, and it's more reminiscent of the late, pre-makeover Radio Milano).
They have pastries in a case at the front, a selection of wines and beverages on display, and good rock tunes on the sound system. However, don't expect much in the way of retail. Unlike LGO — where shelves of food and tchotchkes distract you on the way to the cashier — this is a streamlined operation.
Anyway, none of this should come as much of a surprise if you know that Robson was the founding executive chef of La Grande Orange, after working for local luminaries Robert McGrath and Michael DeMaria. He's recruited chef Patrick Fegan (Fiamma, Olive & Ivy) to run the show here.
Morning at Hillside Spot starts bright and early, with fresh pastries to go with good, strong coffee from Cartel Coffee Lab. I loved my moist, cakey banana nut muffin, and grabbed a giant blondie cookie (full of chocolate, white chocolate, and butterscotch chips) for the road.
I deliberated over a few different egg dishes and the "El Gallo" torta, which is the same egg and chorizo sandwich I've had at Gallo Blanco, but ended up ordering the croque monsieur instead. Served open-faced on thick slices of crusty French bread, it was topped with thinly sliced ham, Bechamel sauce, and melted Gruyère cheese — scrumptious.
Hot steel cut oatmeal with fresh fruit was light but comforting, the plump grains popping between my teeth with every spoonful. And I really enjoyed the thin, made-from-scratch pancakes, which were like a morning dessert with bananas, peanuts, a drizzle of caramel, and some whipped crème fraîche.
At lunch one day, I picked up one of the ready-to-eat salads, called The Derby, and found it to be a version of a Cobb, a mix of spinach, iceberg, and romaine with turkey, blue cheese, tomato, hard-boiled egg, and bacon. I liked that two kinds of dressing — buttermilk ranch and vinaigrette — were included with it.
Half of a citrus-marinated rotisserie chicken was simple but effective with a pile of hot, lightly crispy fries and some sautéed spinach, potato, and onion. Carrot and parsley-flecked coleslaw crowned a fat pastrami Reuben on marble rye, and then did a delicious encore heaped on a killer pulled pork sandwich. Packed into a soft telera roll (the same used for the tortas), it was so mouthwatering that I hardly took a sip of my soda while inhaling it. The slow-roasted pork is so intoxicating that it's the first thing I smell when I walk in the door here.
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Dinner was a pleasant change of pace, with a friendly waitress pouring my glass of affordable wine (the list was all under 30 bucks per bottle, which is a rarity these days) and ultimately convincing me to order a rockin' brownie sundae at the end of the meal. The place was packed, dim, loud, and took on a much cozier, almost boisterous feel.
Snow-white halibut, succulent and gently seared, made a star appearance for one night's special, and it was as good as expected (I've had it on special at Gallo before). Although the Tunisian Grilled Vegetable Salad that came with it was more about greens than grilled veg (a skimpy amount of red pepper and fennel), I still liked it, thanks to spinach and kale tossed with delicate vinaigrette, olives, and fresh green beans that made it perfect for a summer night. And a basic bowl of spaghetti and meatballs hit the spot with fresh-tasting tomato sauce and tender, herb-scented balls of beef.
Hillside Spot is geared to the neighborhood, to be sure, but if you're in Ahwatukee, it should definitely be on your map of places to frequent.