The irony isn't lost on me.
I make no secret of my support for downtown Phoenix. I live here because I want to be close to the action — close to nightlife, shopping, art, and, especially, cool restaurants. I want to see the place thrive.
So watch me kick myself as I say this: I'm jealous of people who live in downtown Gilbert, because they have something that, incredibly, still doesn't exist in my part of town.
Liberty Market, 230 North Gilbert Road, Gilbert
Maiden Lane sandwich: $8
White pizza: $11
Hollywood Cobb: $10
Griddled bread pudding: $8
480-892-2900, Web link
Hours: Daily, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
It's a new eatery called Liberty Market, launched in mid-October by restaurateur Joe Johnston. Whether this means Gilbert's reached a tipping point for its cool quotient remains to be seen, but it's more apparent than ever that Johnston's on a mission to bring cachet to the area.
I'm sure he'd do it single-handedly if he could, although that would be a heck of a project for a guy who already has two popular businesses, Joe's Real BBQ (located catty-corner from Liberty Market, on Gilbert Road) and Joe's Farm Grill (situated on the outskirts of town, at the farm-turned-residential development called Agritopia).
So for Liberty Market, he's enlisted the help of his wife, Cindy, as well as chef/business partner David Traina (Delux, Café Terra Cotta) and his wife, Kiersten. After a total renovation by architect John Chonka, who also transformed Johnston's onetime family farmhouse into the retro-tastic Farm Grill, the circa 1935 market and its 1959 addition is now a bustling restaurant on the town's main drag.
In short, this is the East Valley's answer to La Grande Orange in Phoenix.
So the retail component is not a grocery store, but a place to buy a few novelties before you sit down to eat (or get your food to go). To be sure, you can pick up a package of pasta or some gourmet olives here, grab a pack of old-fashioned Teaberry gum, and choose from dozens of unusual bottled sodas. But most of the merch is inedible impulse-buy stuff — think shelves of artsy greeting cards, Moleskine journals, and quirky books with titles like Hello, Cupcake!
Like LGO, Liberty Market is bustling at just about any time of day. Like at Johnston's other restaurants, the vibe mixes wholesome vintage Americana with a hip, modern sensibility. Order at the counter or the coffee bar, scout out a seat in the airy dining room or on the patio, and grab something to read from racks of complimentary magazines. The table service is efficient, and employees are noticeably friendly.
They've really tried to cover the waterfront with the menu. Earlier in the day, you can nibble on granola with fruit or tuck into a big breakfast quesadilla. From lunchtime onward, there's casual fare, including sandwiches, salads, wood-fired pizzas, as well as craft beers and wines by the glass or bottle.
See ya later, Starbucks — if I lived near Liberty Market, I'd start every day at the E-61 Bar, the sleek in-house java counter named after the gleaming, restored '60s-era Faema espresso machine that they use to make a long list of coffee drinks. From the luscious café mocha (with vanilla bean whipped cream) to the Cortadito (a "micro-latte" served in a shot glass), to the Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk, I loved the caffeinated concoctions here. It's just what I'd expect from Johnston, who was one of the original founders of The Coffee Plantation.
I'd also stop in for a filling breakfast from time to time. On one of my visits, I was crazy about the griddled bread pudding, which had a French toast appeal but was even more guilt-inducing, with crispy griddle marks, a dense, cinnamon-tinged middle, and espresso maple syrup. Indeed, I was bouncing off the walls after a few bites of that and some coffee.
My dining companion was equally pleased with the stick-to-your-ribs American Standard, with scrambled eggs, a buttermilk biscuit, Liberty potatoes (home fries with onion, green chile, and cheddar), and a choice of meat (I tried the grilled flattened meatballs — tasty and different). My only quibble was that the potatoes weren't very hot by the time the plate showed up.
At lunch and dinner, salads are entrees unto themselves. Ravenous, I dug into a huge Hollywood Cobb salad and was surprised when I couldn't actually finish it. Still, the classic mix of Romaine, juicy grilled chicken chunks, tomato, avocado, bacon, and hard-boiled eggs, tossed in red wine vinaigrette, totally hit the spot.
Appetizers were generous, too, like the refreshing smoked salmon with olive oil and lemon juice, and the good-looking Caprese with four big pieces of fresh mozzarella, sliced tomato, basil, and a drizzle of sweet balsamic (plus a nice mixed-greens salad on the side).
There's a big wood-burning Renato oven in the middle of the open kitchen (according to Johnston, it's the same type that Chris Bianco uses), so I had high expectations of Liberty Market's pizza. I wouldn't call them destination-worthy, although the thin-crust pies were pretty good, with soft, doughy edges that were lightly crispy.
Grilled sausage pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella, roasted onions, and ricotta was pleasant, but if I could've changed anything, I would've liked more oomph in the sweet, bland sauce. But I had no complaints with the beguiling white pizza, whose heady blend of flavors — Parmesan cream sauce, smoked mozzarella, bacon, grilled chicken — was brightened with a handful of fresh, peppery arugula on top.
Arugula was just the thing that the Rancher sandwich needed, too, as a foil for thick slices of beef with blue cheese and caramelized onions. Too bad somebody was stingy in the kitchen — there was very little green to be found on it. On the upside, the pressed bread was perfectly hot and crispy, a joy to sink my teeth into. Meanwhile, the Maiden Lane sandwich wasn't pressed, but the bread was just as good, a fresh, soft, golden roll. Horseradish aioli kept the rich fillings (roast turkey, Brie, cranberries, and red cabbage slaw) from being cloying.
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A bonus with the sandwiches was the choice of side dishes, including roasted green beans, a nice homemade coleslaw with julienned carrots and green apple, and corn-tomato-kidney bean salad. Best of all was the roasted sweet potato salad with cranberries and pecans.
The dessert selection did vary day by day, but it was always comforting, from moist, thick brownies to enormous Rice Krispies treats that were just the right consistency. The chocolate chip cookies were awesome — crispy, but still soft and melty inside — and even the homemade granola bars, packed with oats, slivered almonds, sunflower seed, cranberries, and pecans, were buttery and sweet, more candy than health food.
Joe Johnston is one of the Valley's most distinctive tastemakers, a savvy businessman with a unique, stylish point of view. And Liberty Market makes it clear that he's got tremendous pride in his hometown of Gilbert.
I hope the feeling's mutual.