The Back Porch Cafe has its own apple dumpling gang.
The Back Porch Cafe has its own apple dumpling gang.
Erik Guzowski

Red, White and Food

Back Porch Cafe

President Bush is encouraging Americans to band together and support our country, and we're doing it. In this time of flags rippling from the rooftops and fluttering behind vehicles on the road, we're celebrating everything patriotic and proud. So it makes sense that something suddenly appeals so profoundly: old-fashioned, down-home, 100 percent American-style food.

Let CNN blare with disturbing images of pending war; we're finding comfort crawling into a dish of homemade apple dumplings at the Back Porch Cafe. Piping hot, sweet with cinnamon sauce and stick-to-our ribs satisfying, this dessert makes today's crazy world seem like another time, another place.

In a sense, it really is. Back Porch is part of the Farmhouse Village in Gilbert, a circle of historic homes turned last year into a collection of quaint shops and cafes. While stucco and tile subdivisions are choking every last inch of former farm dirt (there's a new home project directly behind the Village even), here's a respite from reality. Nested in a home built in 1903 next to a clutch of equally ancient properties, Back Porch retains old-time charm. Here, life lolls against a yard lush with green grass and trees, protected from the cars churning down Gilbert Road by a white picket fence.

The interior is cozy and bright, with a handful of natural wood tables atop burnished hardwood floors, ruffled gingham curtains on the windows and walls brimming with shelves of country-craft collectibles, fresh jams, antiques and folksy jewelry. A mother-and-daughter team works in the open kitchen, baking cookies, spooning silky peanut butter pie, wrapping thick sandwiches in white paper and chatting with customers. Good weather means gathering on, yes, the back porch, scattered with floral cloth-draped tables among flower and plants.

Few things are cuddlier than old-fashioned egg salad, mounded in plentiful heaps on soft sourdough and draped simply with crisp shredded iceberg and red onion. This Hen House dish is just like mom used to make, with egg so finely mashed it's almost a paste, thick enough to savor. And that's real bird, shaved from a real, unprocessed breast on the Wild Turkey sandwich. It's Thanksgiving with a twist, sparkling with tart cranberry sauce, smeared with dreamy whipped cream cheese and crunchy lettuce on pillowy sourdough.

Other sandwiches yearn to be taken on a picnic, tucked prettily in a wicker basket, then spread on a red-checked cloth under whispering tree branches. A Blue Ribbon makes a fine al fresco companion, its fresh marble rye stuffed with lean, tender roast beef, mild, veggie-crunchy horseradish spread, lacy Swiss and a coverlet of coleslaw. And how could we leave the Farmer's Picnic behind, stacked high with sweet ham, tomato, red onion, shredded lettuce, a splash of oil and vinegar and our choice of provolone, Cheddar or Swiss? Either are ample meals for men fresh off the tractor, partnered with a daily special of tortilla soup swimming with tomato, corn, kidney beans, celery, onion and a mantle of tortilla chips under melting Cheddar.

Daintier sorts -- those who prefer to lounge under a parasol than roll in the grass -- can indulge without guilt on The Harvest, layering cream cheese, crunchy cucumber, juicy tomato, sweet red onion and lettuce on soft bread.

Some things weren't always better in the old days, of course, and Tuna with a Twist would benefit from starring all-white albacore instead of light-variety fish. The pinker stuff may have been familiar in our family's kitchens, but it's too frugal to be served in a restaurant.

As the world marches on, it's sure good to go back to the Back Porch.

Picket Fence

The Picket Fence has been engaged in a little war of its own since opening this spring. The cafe is in the former location of Gilbert's legendary Farmhouse restaurant, which for 12 years served stunningly good country-style breakfasts and lunches to guests venturing to the far outreaches of the East Valley. A little white house backed by a barn and flanked by rolling fields and tractors, the Farmhouse encouraged visitors to patiently wait out the herds of sheep that crossed the town's main roads, to be rewarded with a stack of fresh-from-the-griddle, syrup-drenched pancakes. True -- I endured my share of ewes while trying to get there.

Then, in March, the Farmhouse was sent packing when its owners balked at a rent increase (the original handshake deal of $400 a month was more suited to the time when the land's owner was born there in 1918). The increase was required to support development and maintenance of the Farmhouse Village, which includes Back Porch Cafe, Dixie's Homemade Ice Cream (including two dozen types of homemade fudge), a homemade lemonade store and craft shops. The barn has been converted to a giant gazebo. It's all very lovely.

As soon as Picket Fence moved in, though, Farmhouse fans vowed their undying loyalty, promising to follow the original restaurant to its new location a few miles north in downtown Gilbert. Apparently, they're keeping their word, since lines at the Farmhouse are snaking down its front sidewalk.

And Picket Fence is a poor stepchild to its celebrity sister. While it calms our craving for old-fashioned, all-American cooking, it doesn't leave us seeing stars.

The building itself remains classic, a 1928 Craftsman-style home peeking from behind a white picket fence, with scads of roses and lattice work porches sprawling with vines. But gone is the cozy cottage feel; the eclectic antiques and lace curtains moved down the road. Instead, there are cookie-cutter tables topped with green vinyl, green vinyl chairs, and a collection of catalogue-coordinated country kitsch lining the walls. Mom's kitchen never cranked the Eurythmics and Ricky Martin at 8 a.m., either.

The menu defies its setting, too, focusing on things we'd expect to see at Denny's rather than at a historic cafe. Biscuits and gravy are à la carte only. So are hot cakes, French toast and a waffle. Instead, uninspired breakfast entrees include diner things like an egg sandwich, chopped steak and eggs or New York steak and eggs. The most interesting offering is a side option of Picket Rice, cooked with bits of sausage.

The folks who lived in The Little House on the Prairie surely didn't feast on frittatas, and the do-it-yourself version here is more clunky than comforting. The three-egg blend is cumbersome, dry and sprinkled with our choice of three items. (Sliced sausage rounds from a farm kitchen? Not the good, crumbly stuff? Say it ain't so.) Chicken-fried steak's another sleeper, lacking any great peppery spice in the batter and, horror, missing gravy until we request it. A side of grilled, grocery-quality French loaf is an unacceptable substitute for honest-to-goodness toast.

We can get main day dishes like these anywhere in town -- pan-grilled New York steak, grilled chicken breast and cheeseburgers. Grilled swordfish, even, shows up as a tiny fillet tossed on chopped iceberg and red cabbage, with cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and from-the-box croutons. A Reuben, too, is classic but unremarkable, with spiritless sauerkraut -- the best thing is the side of potato salad, vibrant with yellow mustard and spliced with chopped egg and celery.

If the kitchen focused on items like their specialty, stuffed pork chop, Picket Fence would be a contender. The only thing wrong with this piggy beauty is that it's much too small a chunk of excellent meat, plumped with a mouthwatering savory sourdough and mushroom stuffing. Sides of chunky, skin-on potatoes are more baked than mashed, unfortunately, and dry in their gravy-less presentation.

And how could an American kitchen mess up beef stew? This is soup, really, and ruined by nearly raw vegetables (an everything-but-the-sink mix of green beans, corn, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, peas, onion, mushrooms, lima beans and celery) plus chewy meat.

J.P. Pancake

Pigs-in-a-blanket. Enough said. That only-in-America dish is on the menu at J.P.'s, and it's terrific. First, the pancakes. J.P. fashions the fluffy discs with buttermilk and griddles them to a perfect golden, lacy-crisp edge. Then, the sausages. These healthy critters are Hormel links, juicy and subtle with spices for a taste we all grew up with. Then, the presentation, the pigs tucked happily into their warm comforters and wished sweet dreams with drizzles of tropical syrup, indulgent dollops of whipped butter and sprinkles of powdered sugar.

This place, in an eclectic strip mall at Mountain View and Hayden, sure doesn't look like casual breakfast and lunch. It's in a former space for at least two upscale restaurants that grew past their tiny bistro setting, and management hasn't spent money changing decor. Dark carpeted floors, black walls spiked with glittering mirrors, and black leather-look booths, their tables covered with brocade tablecloths, remain. Chandeliers with your corned beef hash? Why not? This food is still top-notch, down-home country cooking, making us even more proud to be American.

Breakfast is served all day, and a biscuit combo makes a filling lunch too, mounding a duo of fat, properly heavy dough rounds with two eggs, cubed grilled potatoes and ladles of creamy, sausage-studded gravy. What makes a deluxe omelet "Hong Kong style" I don't know, but it's good: a chubby roll stuffed with crumbled sausage, onion, green pepper, mushrooms and American plus Monterey Jack cheeses. French toast is just fabulous, splayed six slices across and fashioned from thick challah dipped in lots of egg and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Dress it up with cinnamon, fresh strawberries or gingered peach compote.

It's hard to be gloomy about the future when faced with such specialty pancakes as J.P.'s -- crowned with fresh blueberries, blended with chopped mixed nuts, or crafted from natural whole grains. Twenty minutes is a reasonable waiting time when it results in a wonderful oven-baked apple pancake the size of a dinner plate and glistening with fresh sliced apples and sugar-cinnamon glaze. Fancier and fantastic: five kinds of Belgian waffles, or a plate of three eggs scrambled with silky lox and chopped onion, partnered by three pancakes, buttery home fries or toast.

Lunch is lower key, with an offering of 11 sandwiches and a daily quiche. But who needs more than this terrific tuna melt on nine-grain, the bread crusted with sunflower seeds and grilled buttery gold? The sandwich arrives obese with albacore and cradling two slabs of gooey melting Swiss. The turkey club's tops, too, gorged with fresh-from-the-bird breast, thick-cut bacon, juicy tomato, crisp romaine and a slather of mayonnaise (try it toasted). There's no cutting corners with chicken salad, either, tossing hearty cubes of grilled breast in highly dilled mayo, capped with lettuce, tomato, alfalfa sprouts and red onion.

With food like this, the American spirit surely isn't flagging.


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