Before you fill up your shopping basket at the Phoenix Public Market's Urban Grocery, fill your belly with homemade soups, sandwiches, and salads at its Market Café.
Before you fill up your shopping basket at the Phoenix Public Market's Urban Grocery, fill your belly with homemade soups, sandwiches, and salads at its Market Café.
Jackie Mercandetti

Phoenix Public Market's Got Lunch Covered with Tasty Sandwiches and Side Dishes

When the Phoenix Public Market opened its long-awaited Urban Grocery & Wine Bar a year ago — my, how time flies! — downtowners rejoiced at having a brick-and-mortar home for local farm products and other foodstuffs to complement the twice-a-week outdoor market.

Here, they could finally stock their fridges with heirloom tomatoes, organic lettuce, piles of seasonal fruit, locally made ice cream, cheeses, and more, without leaving the heart of the city. A grocery store in the 'hood was sorely needed. But I've come to appreciate it just as much for its Market Cafe, something more people need to know about.

For anyone living or working downtown, this place ought to be a staple, thanks to fresh sandwiches, daily-made soups, salads, sweets, and an ever-changing assortment of side dishes that showcase local vegetables at the peak of ripeness. Not to mention you can swing by for a glass of Arizona wine or a regional craft beer. The cafe's been serving a casual all-day menu for a while now and, as of last week, offers breakfast options as well.

Between the inevitable ASU students noshing and socializing between classes, the upbeat indie rock soundtrack, and the chipper, friendly folks behind the counter — where there's a huge blackboard menu and an open kitchen — the vibe at the Market Cafe is refreshingly young and a little bit quirky.

I love the brightness and big windows of the dining area in the front, the cool little side patio, and the antique-looking metal barrels that have been made into signs that hang from high wooden rafters. And considering my enthusiasm for adaptive reuse (i.e., giving an old building new life), it probably goes without saying that I'm glad to see how Community Food Connections, the nonprofit that runs the market, was able to renovate this vintage red brick building rather than razing it.

Every time I visit the Market Cafe, there's something different — which makes me want to go that much more often. Obviously, the soups of the day change (recently, I dunked slices of soft baguette into a velvety pear-parsnip bisque that was dairy-free, to my disbelief), and so do cookies and glistening fruit tarts in the pastry case.

There are usually some interesting homemade drinks served out of big glass jars by the cash register, such as fruit-flavored aguas frescas, kombucha (fermented tea), falooda (a sweet Southeast Asian drink tinged with rosewater), and horchata. Nothing against the bottled drinks available, but I'd rather have one of these.

What really get my attention are the by-the-pound salads and side dishes, heaped onto platters in the display case. You can choose one to go along with a sandwich, or — if you crave variety, like me — assemble your own plate of different tastes.

There could be anything from kale salad to quinoa tossed with tomato, cucumber, and feta. Corn salad with carrot and kale was topped with big, ripe slices of heirloom tomato, and was lipsmacking with a light lemon curry dressing. On the flipside, short rib jambalaya was as rich as it was tasty, toothsome rice filled with hunks of melt-in-your-mouth beef.

Humble cauliflower became a flavorful treat that I wanted to shovel into my mouth when it was gently roasted, for a caramelized effect, and mixed with tender golden raisins. Likewise, roasted beets were naturally sweet but enhanced with chunks of crisp apple. A wedge of potato pie, layered with kale, onions, and Parmesan, was a filling alternative to a sandwich one day.

From the blackboard menu, an arugula salad turned out to be a heck of an entrée-size portion, enough to satisfy my hunger and give one of my friends more than a few bites, too. Delicate, peppery greens, scattered with big toasted croutons, were topped with ripe diced tomatoes and a mound of cheese curds. On the side, there was a cup of tangy-sweet balsamic vinaigrette that complemented the brightness of the arugula.

Hefty sandwiches hit the spot, and I'd say the BBQ pulled pork was my favorite except for some distractingly chewy pieces of fat mixed in with the meat. In any case, I liked the sweet, slightly spicy roasted onion barbecue sauce, which tasted just as good on the BBQ pulled chicken version, made with Red Bird Farms free-range poultry. Both sandwiches were tucked into fluffy honey wheat buns from Bread Basket Bakery, with a side of pickles.

A sturdy Simple Bread baguette was a highlight of the spicy mustard-drizzled roast beef sandwich, which was so packed with meat, greens, and sliced red onion that it was practically open-faced. It took a firm hand to squeeze that baby together to take a bite out of it, but it's worth the effort.

I managed to sample one of the new breakfast dishes, too, a killer BLT egg and cheese sandwich that pretty much destroyed any possibility of me resorting to a McDonald's breakfast biscuit ever again. Think bacon galore — salty, porky goodness from the Meat Shop, layered about a half-inch thick — inside a honey wheat bun, with a fried egg, lettuce, tomato, and cheddar. I can't wait to go back to try the biscuits and gravy, the oatmeal, and the veggie burrito, which will make a welcome yin to the yang of all that bacon.

As I mentioned, there are plenty of sweets to choose from if dessert sounds good, but don't forget the secret arsenal of cupcakes and scones available at the in-house coffee shop, Royal at the Market, at the back of the building. One of Royal's giant chocolate chip cookies, along with a creamy latte, will perk you right up.

From an a.m. bite to an evening snack over drinks, clearly the Urban Grocery & Wine Bar's Market Cafe is working hard to keep downtown well fed. Bravo to a new neighborhood favorite.


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