It's a fine Tuesday morning, and I'm seated at a table in Matt's Big Breakfast, the new diner that opened a month ago on First Street and McKinley, next to the Coronado Hotel, in the same spot where the eatery Chez Bubba used to do business. The sun is shining, and I'm enjoying a cup of coffee, having the small, two-room joint to myself, when a somewhat stocky brunette in geek-chic horn-rims strolls through the doorway.
"This is so cute," she squeals with delight, taking a quick survey of the spot's eggshell-white interior with yellow trim, its bright orange Formica tables and counter. "And I just love the fresh yellow roses on the tables. This is my first time here!"
Matt Pool, who runs the place along with wife Erenia, processes this information in stride, and is soon taking the gal's order. But for me, it's an epiphany. Matt, the former barkeep over at Pizzeria Bianco's wine bar, had her hooked as soon as she stepped over the threshold, a regular customer in the making. Love before the first bite.
At last, it's clear to me why so many women I know have been pestering me about reviewing Matt's Big Breakfast. By the time this scene transpires, I've eaten there three or four times already. I'll agree the establishment is a needed alternative to corporate colon-blockers like Denny's and Coco's, but the menu is still hit or miss. Thus, I've been left wondering why every female I know in Phoenix has gone gaga over Matt's. Now I get it: Most ladies dig cute little nooks just like this one, even if the food lacks the wow factor for which I'm always on the hunt.
I'm not averse to a little ambiance, but cuteness doesn't do much for me. So I'm able to assess Matt's for the mixed bag it offers my tummy. Some things it does well. For instance, the chicken sandwich, with provolone and romaine accompanying a grilled, pesto-drenched breast, is so yummy you wonder why Chick-Fil-A hasn't thought of it already. Similarly, the Big Butter Burger, a thick, tender hunk of ground beef fried up in butter, is an artery-clogging, atavistic joy to eat. However, the kettle chips that accompany both of these I could do without. Fries would be a better bet, if offered.
The BLT was fair to middlin', as was the case with most of the breakfast items I tried. The bacon Matt's serves hails from Queen Creek's Pork Shop, and it's thick, and sweet from the curing process. But I would've preferred bread less thick and toasted a bit more. The griddlecakes I sampled were limp and listless, though the sausage (also from the Pork Shop) was tasty. On another excursion, the omelet du jour, with asparagus, tomato and provolone, was a mediocre effort, with plain egg folded over the contents. The hash browns were more like a potato pancake, as if they hadn't been cooked long enough. The home fries, squares of 'taters fried up with onions, were an improvement, firm and not too greasy.
The desserts, which Matt's outsources, require an overhaul. The apple crumb pie had nice big chunks of apple, but was too squishy and needed more oven time. And, sorry, but the "whoopie pies" have got to go. These brownie-like chocolate cookies with frosting betwixt them taste like a Little Debbie heartburn special. I'd prefer plain ol' Moon Pies, straight from a box, which Pool could offer with the only standard cola -- RC -- that he stocks.
Matt's is clearly a hit with folks in the neighborhood, but the comestibles are not yet on the level of destination dining. Here, Pool could take a lesson from what chef/co-owner Peter Deyo has done over at the Welcome Diner. This is another one of those cute spots the wenches adore, a tiny Depression-era diner renovated by co-owner Sloane McFarland into a postcard-perfect time machine, white with red trim on the outside, blue with a red counter on the inside.
McFarland calls this 200-square-foot candy box at the intersection of 10th Street and Roosevelt "a kitchen with stools." And Deyo insists that the Welcome Diner is mainly intended as a takeout business that just happens to have space to eat inside. Truly, I can only enjoy the place when almost no one is there. By Fatty Arbuckle's ghost, the entire eatery nearly groans when I enter, and I practically have to massage my love handles with butter to get out! Also, if there's more than one customer present, dining becomes a shared experience on a par with making the beast with two backs. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but, please, not while I'm eating.
The food makes up for all this. Deyo has some serious culinary chops, which he applies with gusto to what normally would be considered lowbrow fare. Using largely organic and locally produced ingredients, Deyo means to overwhelm you at each turn with memorable flavors and sensations. So the Welcome Diner becomes not just a historical curiosity, but a place you go back to for the nosh itself.
For breakfast, Deyo makes thick, stick-to-your-ribs pancakes, either plain or chocolate chip, and by the time you finish the latter, you'll think you've eaten a whole Hershey bar. Sausage is a fat Schreiner's link, and the OJ is fresh and pulpy. The egg sandwiches are the best, on a buttered, grilled roll with bacon or sausage and awesome eggs loaded with scallions.
Deyo's hamburger kicks some serious hiney, the beef having been mixed with sea salt and black pepper, and the patty itself basted with jus into which various herbs and spices have been mixed. The fries are from potatoes prepped on the premises, and still bear strips of tuber skin. For a bevvy, you could go with a Mexican Coca-Cola, made with cane sugar, or with my preference, a root beer float made with Mary Coyle's vanilla ice cream and Sparky's, a microbrewed root beer from California. The only thing close to the fuzzy-headed high I've gotten from this burger-fries-float trifecta is the one I obtain from Deyo's fritters, deep-fried batter, sprinkled with powdered sugar, and served with maple syrup. Good thing Peter's married, or I might start making goo-goo eyes at him. I'm not sure if you can call him cute, but my stomach is most certainly infatuated.
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