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Tryst Cafe Does Right by Locavores and Organics

The kalua pork sandwich and sweet potato tots are two standouts at Tryst Café in North Phoenix.
Jackie Mercandetti

"Organic," "hormone-free," "locally grown," "natural." Tryst Café says they're all of these.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking.

You're thinking, "Great, another restaurant cashing in on the locavore trend by throwing around words like naturally delicious, and seasonal just so they can jack up the prices on their ho-hum food. Hey, I was skeptical too. Especially when after unfolding my black cloth napkin, I was handed a two-sided, laminated menu with those very same words spelled out across the top and bottom. Hell, Tryst's dinner menu even had photos of some of the food selections on the back!

Oh, stop sniggering and take a bite. You'll eat those words. I did. And they were delicious.

On my first mouthful of the grilled cheese sandwich, fresh tomatoes resisted slightly, then burst forth with juiciness and sweet flavor, complementing the snappy pepper jack and mild white cheddar cheeses. Beets, often shunned for "tasting like dirt," were anything but in my roasted beet salad, their hearty, sweet, and still "close to the earth" flavor packed fresh into red and yellow cubes, pairing perfectly with goat cheese and the crunch of arugula, then taking a tangy, almost candy-like turn with a sprinkling of honey lime vinaigrette. And the ahi tuna in the Tryst tuna salad and the ahi wonton cups had the clean, distinct flavor of quality yellowfin.

Tryst Café is the second of three restaurants owned by former Chicagoans Sami and Lisa Khnanisho (Sami's Gyros in Tempe and Mama Gina's Pizzeria at Glendale's Westgate City Center). The Khnanishos' point of view on natural, locally sourced ingredients is refreshing — courageous, even — given that Tryst is a small, independently owned spot in a strip mall across Tatum Road from Desert Ridge, where such national chains as Rock Bottom Brewery, T.G.I. Friday's, and Sweet Tomatoes dominate the dining landscape.

Tryst Café is small, a pop-in for breakfast, lunch, or a casual dinner. No sprawling floor plan here; the interior is simple, with the feel of a wide hallway. There's a nice outdoor patio with wood tables and woven chairs that, oddly enough, is within a few feet of the patio of Tryst's next-door neighbor, Humble Pie (each restaurant's diners can be seen eyeing, and sometimes pointing at, the other's dishes). The close proximity of the two patios in a strip mall seems almost comical, given the sprawling nature of the Valley.

Inside, clusters of metal chairs and tables are arranged comfortably, surrounded by deep purple walls with long, colorful, graphic banners. Natural lighting finds its way in via large windows separating the room from the outdoor patio.

A quick glance at the menus confirms Tryst Café's concept of simple, reasonably priced breakfast, lunch, and dinner favorites made with organic, natural, and locally grown ingredients. For the most part, the selections remain as tried and true as standard palate-pleasers like omelets, burgers, and salads, but a few unconventional nods to Hawaiian, Asian, Mexican, and Mediterranean cuisine — such as the house-smoked kalua pork, Desert Ridge summer rolls with a sweet chili mango sauce, shrimp tacos, and grilled Mediterranean chicken served with a tzatziki-drizzled goat cheese salad — go a long way to setting Tryst apart from your average diner. Along with meat dishes, there is plenty for vegetarians and vegans, along with a few gluten-free options.

If you're stopping in at Tryst for breakfast, get to the islands first. When my warm bowlful of Hawaiian breakfast arrived at the table, a diner sitting by me gave me the thumbs-up, "Oh, you'll enjoy that!"

I did. Featuring house-smoked kalua pork (a traditional luau favorite) mixed with cabbage, light jasmine rice, and a couple of wonton crisps and topped with two fried eggs drizzled with a signature soy glaze, the dish was the star of my breakfast outing. The smoky flavor of the pork stood out nicely; and a few more drops of soy glaze really took the dish up a notch.

A plate of pork chorizo and eggs brought the right amount of heat, and although I missed the powdered sugar atop my Monte Cristo sandwich, the taste of heavenly ham, Gruyére cheese, and strawberry jam between two fluffy and sweet French toast slices made up for the omission. Tryst delivered on its naturally raised grilled tri-tip steak (as the better half of my steak and eggs, it was full of flavor) but blundered by serving it well-done after I had requested it medium rare.

When it comes to lunch at Tryst Café, there's a lot to like — especially when it's served with a side of addictive sweet potato tots. Besides the aforementioned stellar beet salad, the Portobello sandwich may have been the best I've had, prepared with lettuce, onion, avocado, and grilled tomatoes singing with flavor on ciabatta bread.

You'll need both hands for the tasty Roast Beast sandwich, served au jus with thinly sliced filet tips, pepper jack, and grilled red onions on a ciabatta roll perfect for dunking in the jus. The turkey was, well, a turkey wrap — and a boring one at that.

At dinner, the house-made cilantro and red pepper hummus appetizer was a treat, and the ahi wonton cups were a tasty mix of chopped fresh ahi and spicy sriracha aioli. Served in less-than-sturdy wonton cups, they proved tricky to eat, but the taste was worth the challenge. The star of the appetizer menu is the beer-battered green beans. These tasty green beauties, lightly coated in Grand Canyon American Pilsner batter, were simply delicious — try to play nice and share.

Like its wonton cup cousin, the seared ahi salad also sported flavorful tuna but seemed to be having an identity crisis. Flavorful veggies fought (and lost) in a taste war against the thickly sliced tuna's overpowering Cajun crust. Factor in the spicy kick of wasabi aioli, and you've got a flavor mess. And though the barbecue bacon burger with white cheddar, applewood bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, onion strings, and barbecue sauce was fine, I found that a far more interesting selection had returned for dinner — the house-smoked kalua pork. This time, it appeared on a drool-worthy sandwich, with Denver-based Big Hoss BBQ Sauce and crunchy coleslaw served up sweetly on a brioche bun.

The service is solid, the staff knowledgeable and friendly. If you're a frequent guest, there's a chance you'll be waited on by a familiar face. Mine happened to be the owners' son. He's a charmer and certainly guided me to some choice dishes, but the boy needs to step up his game when it comes to the more mundane yet vital parts of the trade, like filling water glasses and busing dirty dishes before setting down more food. On occasion, owners Sami and Lisa Khnanisho are on hand as well, graciously inquiring about the food and thanking folks for stopping by.

Tryst Café probably doesn't fit as a destination for those living outside Northeast Phoenix, but it's a great new hangout if you're in the neighborhood — and a tastier alternative to the corporate eateries across the street at Desert Ridge. Sure, "fresh," "local," and "naturally delicious" are overused to the point of nausea, but if the food isn't good, what do those labels matter?

Lucky for us, Tryst Café walks the walk.

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Tryst Cafe

21050 N. Tatum Blvd.
Phoenix, AZ 85050

480-585-7978

www.trystcafe.com


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