First Taste, a
777 South College Avenue, Tempe
About a month
Sandwiches, salads, pastries
When Nocawich owner Eliot Wexler gets an idea for a new dish, it doesn't matter how crazy it is or how little sense it might seem to make; he just makes it happen. That's how the restaurateur with four locations of his fast-casual Nocawich restaurant ended up serving knishes from New York's famous Yonah Schimmel.
Wexler makes sure this delicacy is served with his own unique twist. Each side of the knish gets a turn on the griddle until there's a thin, crispy crust surrounding the fluffy, onion-tinged potato interior. These imported Yonah Schimmel-made creations would be worth a visit on their own, but when paired with a fistful of thick slices of smoky meat and luscious bordelaise sauce, this dish becomes a serious revelation. The perfectly marbled pastrami glistens and actually lives up to the phrase "melts in your mouth."
Unfortunately, for those who aren't early risers, the knishes will be available only in a limited quantity, on Saturdays for lunch. The consolation prize is that there are plenty of great indulgences on the Nocawich menu.
Noca, the fine-dining restaurant Wexler owned for six years before closing it to focus on Nocawich, was famous for its fried chicken. It lives on — thank goodness — in Nocawich's What the Cluck? ($9) sandwich. It's a feat of flavor engineering: a fried chicken breast, slaw, pickles, honey Dijon, and a Parker House roll. The fluffy, buttery roll makes a perfect base for an oversize fried chicken breast that's coated in a deep-brown batter. What's most surprising is how light this sandwich ends up seeming, thanks to the zingy slaw and housemade pickles.
For something even more indulgent, Nocawich offers up a patty melt ($9.50). Don't let the name conjure up images of dry patties between pieces of boring white bread. As you would expect from Wexler, known for using only the best ingredients he can get, this patty melt's made with a Snake River Kobe beef (Wexler says he uses it because of the higher fat content), Gruyere, grilled onions, and more of that bordelaise. Grilled marbled rye bread and pickles round out sandwich that's just messy enough to feel like you're eating something bad but not so messy that you can't consume it gracefully if the occasion calls for that type of thing.
For a side, get the fries ($5). These triple-cooked beauties are up there with the best in town and come with two dipping sauces, both worth any amount of extra calories. The three-step cooking process gives the thick-cut fries a crispy crust that's otherwise nearly impossible to achieve. If you're the kind of diner who's usually searching the bottom of the basket for the crunch of overcooked escapees, a serving of these fries will be a total game changer.
And, yes, healthy diners have options at Nocawich, too. The restaurant serves two salads, either of which can be ordered as a wrap. The first, a version of a classic chopped salad ($12), includes strips of chicken, bacon, grain, arugula, marinated tomatoes, jicama, cranberries, candied walnuts, and Manchego. Tossed with buttermilk ranch, the ingredients give a satisfying balance between sweet and salty throughout. The marinated tomatoes and nutty grains in particular make the salad standout.
The other salad, a Tuscan Kale Salad ($8), is a simpler affair made with golden raisins, pickled red onions, caper berries, apples, fennel, and bread crumbs. The lemon vinaigrette makes this the lighter option; we'd be happy to try it as a wrap with the addition of chicken for $3.
Aside from these highlights on the lunch menu, Noca also serves a breakfast menu with options such as a pastrami and egg sandwich, fry-stuffed breakfast burrito, and apple cinnamon oatmeal. The morning's star is by far the New York bagel and lox, which features Russ & Daughters smoked salmon on an H&H bagel.
And the housemade pastries might just be the most overlooked part of Nocawich so far. In the restaurant's small case you'll find muffins, cookies, brownies, sticky buns, and more that are made in house everyday. The cookies ($2), in particular, are an easy addiction. Try the classic chocolate chip, which comes sprinkled with sea salt and has the perfect balance between semi-sweet chocolate and rich caramel flavors, or the peanut butter and jelly cookie, a salty-sweet creation with a fruity center.
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Wexler's described Nocawich as serving "fine fast food, or fast fine food," but the truth is the restaurant just serves fine food, period.