Sometimes the best cure for a rough week (or the dreaded Monday blahs) is an international escape. When you can't literally hop a plane, the next best thing is to indulge in a foreign treat. My personal favorite are crepes, the wafer-thin stuffed pancakes that originated in Northern France. They're rare in Phoenix, but not impossible to find if you know where to look.
For this week's Battle of the Dishes, we headed to two small, casual cafes known for their customer service and their savory crepes.
In One Corner: Cupz N' Crepes
4232 E. Chandler Blvd in Phoenix/Ahwatukee
Located in the Southeast Phoenix strip mall that also houses Secreto, Cupz N' Crepes was named one of the best local breakfast joints by Ahwatukee Foothills News when they opened back in 2008.
The place has a funky coffeehouse vibe, with a giant chalkboard specials menu hanging from the unique punched metal drop ceiling, mirrored columns and a lounge area with overstuffed couches and a flat screen TV in the back. Coming in for the first time, it's hard to know how the ordering process works. The chalkboard menu and cash register seem to indicate an order-at-the-counter joint, but I spotted a server taking cash from two chatty ladies.
Cupz N' Crepes offers a decent selection of savory and sweet crepes, plus a handful of salads and a good-sized coffee & tea menu. Hope you like chicken, because it seems to be everywhere except in the coffee! The Nat with hot wing sauce and bleu cheese was tempting, but I opted for the more European sounding Chicken Supreme with mozzarella, baby spinach, tomatoes and pesto.
My crepe arrived in record time -- ripe red roma tomatoes and fresh baby spinach overflowing out of a small triangle of light, fluffy pancake.
There are several types of crepe batter common in France. Often a thicker, heavier buckwheat batter is used for savory crepes and a thinner sweet batter is used in dessert versions. It's interesting to note that Cupz N' Crepes makes no distinction in their sweet and savory crepes. I bit in. The crepe wrapper was perfectly cooked, with light golden brown edges and a slightly sweet taste. It was a little chewy, which was compounded by the sticky mozzarella, but easy to overlook.
Roma tomatoes were juicy and ripe, with a gentle acidity and a sweet undertone. The spinach was cooked well, just enough to steam some of the crispness out of it without the leafy green getting soggy or limp. The diced chicken breast was high quality and still somewhat juicy, though it wasn't marinated or spiced. Mozzarella was definitely the less flavorful out-of-the-bag variety, but made a nice glue to bind the other ingredients together. My dining companion especially appreciated the basil pesto.
"I love how delicate the pesto is," he said, biting into my leftovers. "It tastes farmers' market fresh, and it's not hitting me over the head with H-E-R-B."
"Delicate" was an excellent way to sum up the Chicken Supreme crepe. It was a smaller portion than I've seen at other local crepe joints (Note: with smaller prices to match). And it was extremely light, the kind of meal that doesn't anchor in your stomach later. I felt so refreshed and energized by my meal -- even including a delicious dessert crepe with Nutella, strawberries and cream cheese -- that I definitely plan on going back for more.
In the Other Corner: Sandwich Club
4020 N. Scottsdale Rd. in Scottsdale
I'm dying to try the newer Le Chalet in Glendale, which dining critic Michele Laudig reviewed favorably a few months back. But it seemed unfair to pair the more upscale fondue restaurant against a teensy strip mall cafe, so the Alpine-themed eatery will have to wait its turn for another battle. Instead, I decided to see if the 4.5 star Yelp! rating of Scottsdale's Sandwich Club would stand up on our visit.
While a few potential patrons were eyeing the menu board outside (and inevitably comparing it with Daily Dose next door), Sandwich Club's Parisian co-owner walked outside and beckoned us to come in for lunch. Even if I hadn't planned a visit that day, his charm might've gotten me in the door. That European hospitality is what seems to really draw people to this place, which has one of the blandest names around. Sandwich Club? Really? I suppose it's no worse than The Breakfast Club a few blocks up, but at least that was a memorable movie.
It's a tiny but cheerful place with just a handful of indoor tables, sunny yellow walls and a large counter slash galley kitchen. Again, I didn't know where to order. At the register? At the Subway-esque glass counter? Would someone serve us, or deliver our food? I mimicked the moves of a Sandwich Club regular and ordered at the counter. Tempted by a brie sandwich that female co-owner Terri was in process of making, I ordered the savory crepe with brie, ham and tomato. It arrived on my table about five minutes later, a massive plate-sized brown wrapper encasing what looked like a pound of ingredients. Definitely NOT a Parisian portion!
The crepe was as dark and heavy as the approaching storm, with an eggy taste and a toothsome texture. The tomatoes were green, a common problem in Phoenix this season. It always amazes me that restaurants serve under-ripe tomatoes when they could easily hunt down some hothouse romas or cherries this time of year. My dining companion picked them off after the first bite.
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Another issue was the temperature of the crepes. The outside was piping hot and overly browned, while the thick slices of rind-on brie hadn't melted and the piles of ham still cool to the touch. "This ham is flavorless," griped my partner when he sampled the plate afterwards. "It basically just tastes like an upscale grilled cheese." Personally, I enjoyed the lighter flavor of the ham, though it might've been balanced better by thinner slices of the pungent brie.
Throughout the meal, I watched as the owners chatted with some of their regulars in French and offered a free French pastry topped with fruit to a couple at the next table. That European "customers as family" treatment is definitely what keeps people coming back to Sandwich Club. I'll be back too; if nothing else, to practice my French and try one of those delectable-looking fruit galettes.
The winner: Cupz N' Crepes. I felt lighter and far more satisfied after my visit there, despite Sandwich Club's French charm.