God, I could go for a pint of Stella Artois, or "wife-beater," as it's sometimes referred to in merry ol' England. I'm in a black-and-white box of an eatery, surrounded by photos of Cornish tin miners, reading a biography of Hermann Goering. Halfway through my midday meal, it hits me that this would be the perfect time to quaff some lager and thus wash down this marvelous mixture of potato, rutabaga, onion and steak now vacationing in my tongue-cavern.
Dean Thomas, proprietor of the two-month-old Cornish Pasty Co. in Tempe, promises that the Stella's on its way. Well, give or take a few months. The native of Gunnislake, Cornwall, in England, who came to America five years ago to seek his fortune, has yet to apply for his license to peddle beer and wine. (Sigh.) But he says he soon will, thus fulfilling my fervid fantasy to inhale one of his massive meat-and-veggie-filled turnovers with the aforementioned suds, or even a perky glass of Zin.
A pass-tee, as it's pronounced, is essentially a pas-try that looks a bit like a deflated football (the American, not the British kind) and is traditionally stuffed with the hearty fare I've listed above, seasoned simply with salt and pepper. It's Cornish comfort food, savory and satisfying, with a flaky, potpie crust pinched in the middle so that it forms a distinctive, squiggly seam. You can purchase these pillows of baked dough at some Brit pubs locally. However, Thomas' restaurant has cornered the market on the Valley's all-pasty front.
The Cornish Pasty Co.
960 West University Drive (northeast corner of Hardy and University, facing Hardy), Tempe
The Oggie (traditional pasty): $5
The Porky: $5.50
Pesto chicken: $6
Bonofee pie: $3.50
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.
These prosaic, though tasty, pastries date back to the 1200s, are mentioned in Shakespeare's plays, and were a fave of Henry VIII's third wife, Jane Seymour. Indeed, legend has it that Old Scratch never ventures into Cornwall because he fears some stout housewife there will turn His Satanic Majesty into pasty-innards!
The pasty is perhaps most closely associated with the tin miners in Cornwall, that area on England's southwesternmost tip, which once boasted thousands of mines. The tin mines are defunct, but pasties remain as a reminder of what was once considered (and still is) a practical, stick-to-your-ribs repast. In fact, the pasty's crisp exterior supposedly helped miners avoid poisoning themselves with the arsenic that ended up on their hands as a byproduct of extracting tin ore.
Part of this saga is recounted on the back the Cornish Pasty Co.'s brief but informative menu. But it's also illustrated in the smudged faces of the men and boys that stare out at you from the old pictures owner Thomas has blown up and affixed to the walls of this black-and-white-themed establishment. These colors are the same as in the Cornish flag, a white cross on an ink-black background. It's the standard of St. Piran, the patron saint of Cornwall and of all miners. By lore, it was St. Piran who taught the locals how to smelt tin. A mixed blessing, to judge by the youth of many of the miners and their appalling working conditions. (Coincidentally, the Cornish celebrate St. Piran's day on March 5, this Saturday.)
I find all of this history fascinating, and I can think of no more enjoyable way of expanding my knowledge of Kernow (Cornwall, in Cornish), as well as the lining of my stomach, than by downing a pasty or two at Thomas' smartly appointed shop. From a space about the size of a railroad car, Thomas has crafted a pleasant spot, mostly one long, tiled counter with gleaming metal seats, and some low tables and chairs against the opposite wall. The counter even has hooks underneath for the hanging of knapsacks and purses. An innovative little detail.
Thomas doesn't allow himself to be hog-tied by tradition on the pasty front. Sure, pasty purists probably won't want to venture past the trad pasty, called an oggie, but then how many pasty purists can there be in this desert? Thomas has toyed with the concept, adding such variations as pesto chicken, chicken Greek, meatball, and chicken tikka masala to a list including those you can find in Britannia, such as the porky, and the lamb and mint.
Some of these experiments work better than others, but the oggie (steak, onion, potato and rutabaga) is still tops. Runner-up's the porky, a fragrant combination of swine, sage, onion, apple and potato. Like the oggie, the porky is served with a side of red wine gravy, for those who might think solo pasty too plain. But the dip obstructed my enjoyment of both oggie and porky, especially the latter, which balanced the flavors of sage and pork with a thin layer of apple on the bottom crust. Bottom line: no dip needed on these two.
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I thought I'd like the lamb and mint better than I did. The lamb had a nice gaminess, and I appreciated the mint, but, lamb enthusiast that I am, I'd prefer a pasty that was almost all lamb and mint, with not nearly as much potato and rutabaga. How about lots of lamb, with a thin layer of mint jelly on the bottom? Not Cornwall kosher, for sure, but then, neither are the pesto chicken or chicken tikka masala. The chicken tikka masala is like a samosa with a glandular problem. Not bad, but the pesto chicken is truly a gourmet pasty of mushroom, pesto, artichoke and mozzarella.
The only one I really didn't care for was the mini-meatball and mozzarella, accompanied by a side of house-made marinara. Thomas concedes he added it as a sop to those patrons weirded out by words like oggie and pasty, but even so, he'd do well to tweak it. As it is, the meatballs taste like sausage and are overwhelmed by cheese. Why not make the meatballs bigger, with less cheese?
There are other pasties I'm hot to try, especially the chicken Alfredo and the chicken Greek. Thomas offers an assortment of veggie pasties, so if you're a vegetarian, like Adolf H. was back in the day, have at them; I'm sure they're delish. For dessert, the apple-caramel sounds wunderbar, but I sampled the bonofee pie instead -- graham cracker crust beneath layers of gooey caramel, sliced bananas, and cream whipped onsite. A snarfalicious morceau, I assure you.
Let's hear it for immigration! Expat Thomas, a vet of Pita Jungle and of a Mexican joint he ran in, of all places, Bristol, has single-handedly turned Tempe into Arizona's capital of Cornish pasty. What else can we ask of the bloke? Ahem, a jar of wife-beater, what else?