To really appreciate the appeal of Joe’s Midnight Run, a retro-styled restaurant and bar situated along Phoenix’s trendy Seventh Street corridor, it helps if you are a child of the ’80s or ’90s. It helps if you remember the parental furor over Garbage Pail Kids cards and Beastie Boys party anthems, the fateful saga of Tupac versus Biggie, and the first time you heard the thump of Run DMC’s “Walk This Way” or Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice” blasting from the windows of a passing car.
But even if you have no personal memory of these things, or there is simply no place in your heart for old-school hip hop or ’80s pop culture, odds are still good that you will manage to squeeze a good time out of Joe’s Midnight Run, a restaurant and bar of manifold appeal. If you don’t go for its quirky retro theme, or the stylish digs, or its recently debuted brunch menu, then you will probably go for something else on its eclectic New American menu of wood-fired fare, which is cleverly described by the kitchen as a “culinary remix.”
Joe’s Midnight Run was named in honor of Joe’s Drive-Thru Liquor, the 24-hour neighborhood beer-and-spirit den that once operated in the same space. Owner Rick Cordova salvaged the ’60s-era building, with its good bones and clean lines, and transformed it into a midcentury-chic space replete with warm-wood tabletops, cushy half-booths, and attractive geometric steel partitions. Classic hip-hop lyrics have been stenciled onto its brick walls, giving the space a fun, funky edge that you won’t find at, say, your neighborhood Postino.
The main dining room breezily transitions into a dog-friendly patio, where a TV plays ’80s and ’90s movie classics — on a recent night, Mrs. Doubtfire was screening — but the movie dialogue is mostly buried under a steady soundtrack of Tone Loc and A Tribe Called Quest.
This is one of the louder patios in uptown, although it’s sedate enough on most nights to sustain the easy back-and-forth of small talk across the table. Service is memorable because it tends to be almost over-attentive, with servers swooping in to refill water glasses every few minutes.
There’s a well-rounded wine and craft beer list, augmented by cocktails and beers that veer toward novelty. There’s a “Sunnyslope Iced Tea,” for example, a tall, ultra-sugary, curaçao-sluiced cocktail that’s a bright and unnatural shade of blue. And you can order a $4 King Cobra, the cold bottle served in a brown paper bag stamped with a portrait of Ice Cube. All good fun, but probably neither are destined to become your go-to drink order.
The ’90s jams and 40-ouncers in paper bags — and the library of Garbage Pail Kids books that the restaurant uses as bill holders — might give the impression that Joe’s Midnight Run is not a serious place to eat.
But executive chef Michael Goldsmith’s menu of globally inspired New American fare is notably ambitious. The expansive menu is divided between a dozen or so small plates (“Shorties”), and about a half-dozen entrees (“Biggies”). Notably, the kitchen has eschewed gas ranges in favor of the swelter and old-fashioned elbow grease of cooking with wood — all dishes are prepared over the open flame of a grill, or in the restaurant’s wood-fired oven (the kitchen uses almond and oak wood).
So, as it turns out, the real action at Joe’s Midnight Run is not out on the boisterous patio, but around the open kitchen, where bar-style seating gives you a front-row seat. On any given night, a team of five or so bearded young dudes work the open flames at a somewhat manic pace, and the result of their smoke-tinged labor is often delicious. But there are also kinks in the restaurant’s apparatus — some more obvious than others.
From the small plates menu, there’s a plate of roasted veggies featuring a couple of slightly withered, lightly charred asparagus stalks; a pair of roasted onion bulbs, swollen and bursting with mellow sweetness; some nicely seasoned fingerling potatoes, and a handful of stray cauliflower florets. A smoky but slightly flat romesco sauce is smeared on the side of the bowl, all of which roughly adds up to a dish of droopy, caramelized veggies: fine and good, but not very memorable.
A plate of curried cauliflower is better, the florets charred to a nice dark crisp in places, and spiced up just enough to make the veggie pop with the scent of cumin. A sprinkling of currants and sliced almonds, plus ringlets of withered shallots, add measured notes of sweetness and crunch.
A dish of grilled pulpo, meanwhile, is delicious. The thumb-sized hunks of octopus are pleasantly smoky and subtly seasoned with paprika oil. And a small plate of skirt steak is also very good. The steak is cooked to a careful medium-rare, lightly smoky and very juicy, and carved out into neat slices that are paired with a simple chimchurri sauce and grilled red peppers.
The plate most likely to divide public opinion might be the restaurant’s cantina poutine, a Southwestern take on the north-of-the-border specialty. A generous serving of the wonderful house fries — thick, hot and crispy, and impeccably seasoned with flakes of salt and herbs — make up the base of the dish. The fries are topped with a thick, tomatoey gravy, which is nicely seasoned and mottled with a chunky, homemade Schreiner’s chorizo. The dish might not achieve the same level of indulgence of a traditional poutine, but it’s pretty irresistible in its own right.
More adventurous eaters will appreciate the sweetbreads plate. The organ bits are lightly dredged in flour and sautéed in white wine, their juicy, creamy consistency given a much-needed blast of salt from capers. But the dish could be improved with more seasoning, and by giving the sweetbreads a more pronounced crisp.
Some of the menu’s most satisfying plates are on the “Biggies” menu, where sandwiches and burgers tend to shine.
The essential dish at Joe’s Midnight Run might be the Notorious B.I.G. burger, a monstrosity of a sandwich that seems destined to make a cameo someday on some Food Network show or other. It’s a tall order — quite literally, as the sandwich is about seven inches tall. It’s layered with a beefy patty, pulled pork, a heap of coleslaw, and a couple of extra-crunchy chicharrones, all held together by a wooden skewer. It’s as tasty as it is messy.
An ahi tuna sandwich will seem somewhat tame by comparison, but it’s no less delicious. The lightly seared tuna steak is dressed in a bright, tangy basil aioli, and generously smothered in havarti cheese. Every bite ripples with wonderful tangy, citrus flavor.
But the limitations of the kitchen are pushed in a pricey $24 oven-roasted foie gras dish. On a recent visit, the foie gras was significantly undercooked and very bitter.
Still, there is always dessert. The thing to try at least once here is the remarkable house tart tatin, a sort of sticky, chewy, ultra-sweet apple puff pastry that simultaneously seems to stick to your teeth and dissolve on your tongue like cotton candy.
It’s a dessert that embodies the sort of high-low culinary aesthetic at work at Joe’s Midnight Run — light and frivolous, but also interesting enough to make you want to come back for more.
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Joe’s Midnight Run
6101 North Seventh Street
Hours: Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Saturdays 9:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Sundays 9:30 a.m. to 12 a.m.
Roasted veggies $7
Cantina poutine $10
Notorious B.I.G. burger $14
Oven-roasted foie gras $24