Welcome to The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. From now until May, we'll be sharing 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix.
30: Big Jim at Welcome Diner
Welcome Diner, the vintage red-and-white mobile restaurant that lights up the corner of Roosevelt and 10th streets in downtown's Garfield neighborhood, is emerging as something of a Phoenix icon.
Over the years, the Kansas-made, nine-stool diner has survived relocation (the diner previously lived on a stretch of Route 66 in northern Arizona), a change in ownership, a car crash that damaged part of the property, and a major economic recession, among the many other workaday challenges that restaurants come up against.
Welcome Diner is the kind of place you might expect to find somewhere else — beckoning from a roadside clearing in the woods in Mississippi, maybe, or hunkered somewhere in a food pod court in Portland, Oregon. Today, though, Welcome Diner seems more at home than ever in downtown Phoenix.
Getting a counter seat inside the tiny diner is a challenge, but there always seems to be just enough room in the front yard, an inviting space with a loose, friendly arrangement of mix-and-match table seating, mason jars and potted plants, lit up warmly by strings of lights.
Chef Michael Babcock's menu of deep Southern eats pays homage to comfort-food staples like braised pork and biscuits and gravy. Dishes are often spun with Arizona ingredients, and bear a hipster devotion to craft and creativity.
If you put together a master list of the most memorable sandwiches around town, surely the Big Jim at Welcome Diner would make the cut. It's probably the diner's standard-bearer sandwich, and one of the most breathtakingly indulgent dishes around downtown Phoenix.
It starts with a homemade biscuit, which gently flakes and melts across your palate. Squeezed inside the biscuit, there's a very tender piece of buttermilk fried chicken, topped with a thick, peppery gravy and a slice of melted cheddar cheese. A couple of strips of crisp bacon are squeezed in there, unabashedly adding another layer of texture, salt, and flavor to every bite. A simple, refreshing watermelon salad on the side turns out to be the ideal pairing. It helps bring your palate back to reality, after the effusive flavor bomb that is the Big Jim sandwich.
The Big Jim might remind you a little of a breakfast sandwich. Welcome Diner, though, opens in the evenings and stays open until 2 a.m. on most nights, which means you can have the Big Jim for a late-night dinner (or a very early breakfast), if you so wish.
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The Essentials so far:
50: Tequila Sunrise at the Arizona Biltmore.
49: "Dragon" Dumpling Burger at Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour.
48: Dizzy Fig Empanada at Republica Empanada.
47: Linguine Carbonara at Avanti.
46: The Food Court at Mercado de los Cielos.
45: Chicken Feta Salad at George’s Kitchen.
44: Spinach & Cheese Chimi Burro at Mi Patio Mexican Restaurant.
43: Dinner at Rustler's Rooste.
42: Gyro Omelet at Mel's Diner.
41: Zipps Wings at Zipps Sports Grill.
40: Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa.
39: Asian Nachos at Moto.
38: Olive Oil Tasting at Queen Creek Olive Oil Mill.
37: Baby Back Ribs at Don & Charlie's.
36: Limoncello at Cibo.
35: Chili Salt Chicken Wings at Asian Café Express.
34: Smoked Prime Rib at Texaz.
33: Steak Salad at Feeney's.
32: Tasting Menu at Kai Restaurant.
31: Toffee Banofi Sundae at Sweet Republic.