Last fall, when Lisa G Cafe Wine Bar owner Lisa Giungo told me she was selling her business to take a break from the hectic pace of entrepreneurship, it initially struck me as gloomy news, especially considering the work she'd put into transforming the Seventh Street bungalow into a cozy restaurant.
But once I learned more about the new owners, Matt and Courtney Diamond, I was hopeful that it would flourish in its new incarnation as The Main Ingredient Ale House & Café. The young couple has been acquainted with Giungo for years and is fulfilling a dream by finally starting their own place.
Later, after I blogged about the news on Chow Bella, I got an out-of-the-blue message from Postino owner Craig DeMarco, who only had nice things to say about Matt Diamond, his former employee. Can't say I've ever gotten an unsolicited call from any restaurant owner giving props like that before.
Main Ingredient Ale House
2337 North Seventh Street
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday
The Winner Salad: $9
Coronado Coney: $6
The Sheridan sandwich: $9
Diamond also honed his chops in the wine biz by working for two other Valley wine experts, Peter Kasperski (Cowboy Ciao, Kazimierz, etc.) and Tom Kaufman (Humble Pie). At The Main Ingredient, his affordably priced selection of 21 wines by the bottle (14 of which are also by the glass) has a spectrum of styles from the West Coast, including a couple of Arizona picks (Page Springs Cellars and Arizona Stronghold).
After visiting The Main Ingredient several times since it opened a few weeks ago, I completely understand where DeMarco's vote of confidence comes from. The food is tasty, the staff is welcoming (if a little green yet), and there's a great energy going on.
This isn't a "wine bar," though. Diamond told me he thought the term was getting tired and was hoping to emphasize craft beer by calling The Main Ingredient an "ale house" instead. He's got five AZ brews among the eight on tap, along with 20 bottles and cans. If you want to go cheap, there's two-dollar Schlitz and Miller High Life mixed in with beer-geek faves like Bear Republic Racer 5 and Deschutes Black Butte Porter.
Honestly, this is what the place needed. As much as I was a regular supporter of Lisa G, I was constantly racking my brain to figure out why the cafe wasn't busier. Since I'm just as likely to be knocking back pints of IPA with the boys as I am to be sipping flavored martinis with the girls, I kept coming back to the notion that a few more hearty dishes and microbrews might have made it more guy-friendly. The Bowl of Balls (Italian meatballs from an old family recipe) was killer, but somehow not enough.
The crowd nowadays is fully coed, mostly 20- and 30-somethings huddled around high tables or lounging on the couch as vintage hip-hop and soul tracks thump on the stereo. Not a lot has changed about the physical space — the banquette at the back is gone, there's more seating, and the art celebrates Diamond's musical tastes — yet the atmosphere is quite different. Later at night, the place is bangin', sort of a mini-Roosevelt-meets-Postino, and the front patio gets busy, too.
It's more than just a neighborhood watering hole, though, with a full menu of craveable sandwiches and salads.
The Coronado Coney is one of the star choices, a jumbo all-beef hot dog from Schreiner's Fine Sausage (just up the street). For me, the appeal was its simplicity — a flavorful, juicy frank, a bit of red onion and Nut Brown Ale mustard to punch it up, and a top-notch sourdough roll to hold it all together.
Tuna salad is something I often seek out, and I liked this recipe a lot — chopped eggs and bits of Kalamata olive made it distinctive. As a sandwich, it was teamed with tomato and melted havarti on sourdough, while its salad version featured a pile of field greens tossed in lemony vinaigrette.
Even if this is an "ale house," the seasonal salad, with greens, candied pecans, Gorgonzola, Anjou pear, and sherry vinaigrette, was as good as any you'd find at the best wine bars in town. Same goes with The Winner, a combination chopped/Cobb salad with greens, romaine, hard-boiled egg, Kalamata olives, salami, turkey, tomato, and fresh mozzarella dressed in lemon vinaigrette.
Diamond mentioned that he was especially proud of the griddled cheese sandwich, so I had to try that as well. Nicely done! The sourdough bread was golden and buttery, and cool slices of ripe tomato were a delicious contrast to the gooey blend of melted havarti, Muenster, and cheddar.
Roasted garlic goat cheese enhanced the sweetness of roasted pepper, zucchini, and eggplant on focaccia, while creamy horseradish sauce jazzed up a baguette stuffed with rare roast beef and havarti. The Sheridan (turkey, salami, and cheddar on baguette) and The Calvano (sopressata, provolone, artichoke, and red pepper on focaccia) were also mouthwatering.
Sharable dishes turned my dining companions into eager chowhounds. You could practically make a meal for two from the "Pro-Pasto" antipasto plate, generously heaped with three kinds of cheese, sopressata, roasted vegetables, house-blend olives, and fresh bread (the menu says focaccia, but mine came with baguette).
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Chips and salsa weren't bad, but the Artichoke Heaven — warm, cheesy artichoke dip with La Tolteca chips — was far more addicting. We scooped out every last speck of the stuff and were sad when it was gone. And the baked mac and cheese tasted as comforting as it smelled, thanks to mild green chiles and a sinful amount of cheddar.
Locally made cheesecake (Arizona Cheesecake Co.) and ice cream (Crave) are on hand if you still have room, but this being a beer-centric hangout, the Stone Imperial Stout float is the way to go.
Expect to find me out on the patio with one of those, from now until next winter.