Locals always complain about Phoenix's lack of a solid identity as if it's a bad thing. Hey, where else can you see a skyscraper, a haute couture boutique and a working farm, all in the span of an hour? We have everything here. When we're clamoring for the old-school charm of a neighborhood kitchen without doilies and cocks -- er, roosters -- we head to Liberty Market at 230 N. Gilbert Rd. in Gilbert.
Liberty Market was originally a grocery store that opened back in 1935 when Gilbert was a lazy agricultural 'burb with a whopping 800 residents. Now, thanks to engineer-turned-restaurateur Joe Johnston of Joe's Real BBQ, it's a modern urban kitchen. It's easy to score lunch under $10 here, although you'll have to stick with water if you want to keep the tab under a ten-spot.
There's the wood-fired Sicilian pan pizza, offered at $5-6.50 for a huge slice or as a lunch special for $9 with a small salad and drink. The flavor of the day on our visit was mushroom and bacon...yum! Other affordable options included a Picnic Salad with turkey, caramelized
pecans, green apple and blue cheese ($8.50), the Arizona Sky Sandwich with ham and fontagne cheese ot the "Liberty Bowl" of pasta and meatballs for $9.
So many choices! We stood there staring at the cold case of salads, with the paper menu in hand, for about ten minutes before the cashier took pity on us and asked if we needed a recommendation. Not two seconds after we spilled on our choices, she grinned and said, "When's the last time you had a Sloppy Joe?"
Our response: "Um...in childhood?"
After a hearty endorsement of their signature Liberty Joe ($7), we ordered and sat down at a quiet booth overlooking the outdoor courtyard. For a weekday, the place was pretty crowded. A group of young hipsters pounded cappuccinos while discussing Plato and Rumi at the coffee counter. Two nerdy looking guys spoke in tongues over laptops on the conference table in back (ok, maybe not, but it sure sounded like tongues to this n00b). Three senior citizens griped about who would pay the bill. Ah, it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood!
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The sweet, tangy barbecue sauce was mouthwateringly good and the ground beef the perfect balance between too lean and greasy. Even the panini-grilled buttery white bun was a treat, tasting like a fresh oven-baked dinner roll.
It's worth the extra $1.50 to add some cheese for contrast (white American or cheddar works great), though the meat could stand alone without it. A side of caprese pasta salad was clean and delicious, but next time we'll also save room for a slice of the delectable red velvet cake ($5).
When you're bummed about Phoenix's strip mall addiction, take a trip to Liberty Market for a dose of historic charm and neighborhood friendliness -- without having to hop a plane.