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Tuck Shop Invites You to Come for the Skirt Steak and Stay for the Best Gin and Tonic in Town

A couple of reasons to check out Tuck Shop: spiced skirt steak with Parmesan lentil mashed Yukons, and panko-and-walnut-crusted fontina.
Jackie Mercandetti

It's not hard to find a good meal in the Coronado District. Drive up the stretch of Seventh Street between McDowell and Thomas, and you'll find quite a few decent options, from casual (That's a Wrap) to classy (Trente-Cinq 35). To get to the newest and most intriguing restaurant in these parts, though, you have to delve a bit deeper into the 'hood.

No, you won't readily stumble on low-key little Tuck Shop like you would some of the other restaurants around here, but it's definitely worth a detour from the main drag for Southern-influenced small plates and a welcoming vibe.

Tuck Shop tags itself "neighborhood comfort food" — fitting, since this three-month-old eatery is in the heart of a residential area, at the corner of 12th Street and Oak. Indeed, its location was a sticking point for some locals (who argued, before it was even open, that it might lower their property values), so the City of Phoenix made concessions to the complainers by stipulating Tuck Shop's business hours along with its use permit. As a result, it's open only for dinner.

By now, though, I'm betting those detractors have changed their minds.

For one thing, Tuck Shop has such an inviting atmosphere that I can't imagine who wouldn't want to live nearby. Owner DJ Fernandes, an architect by day and newbie restaurateur by night, revamped the 1950s-era building (which used to house the Arizona Showman's Association) into a relaxing hideaway that's one part sleek tapas bar and two parts cozy living room.

Tuck shops, by the way, are common in schools across the U.K. — they're little nooks where students can grab a bite to eat. Fernandes says the student-run snack shop at the private school he attended in Rhode Island was where he used to meet his buddies for a Coke and Snickers, so he came up with the restaurant name as a nostalgic nod to the tuck shop as a social meeting place.

The restaurant is certainly geared toward hanging out, whether you make a meal out of it or just have some drinks. (Well, either way, you should order drinks. There's wine and beer, but the cocktails are noteworthy. How about Pimm's No. 1 with spicy housemade ginger ale, or the best gin and tonic in town, with housemade tonic, lip-smacking Hendrick's Gin, and a paper-thin strip of cucumber?)

Just inside the front door, a compact bar divides the kitchen end of the building from the dining room. A sturdy, handsome wooden communal table, decorated with glossy white vases, sits at the middle of the room, surrounded by smaller dining tables, while a long, low shelf sections off a homey Mid-Century Modern waiting area. Abstract canvases, lots of candles, and a clever swath of wood ceiling panels add to the convivial charm.

Restaurant consultant Mitch Hoverman, who was involved in the opening of downtown breakfast spot Palatte, and who is currently Tuck Shop's pastry chef, devised the tapas-style menu. Most of the items are sharable nibbles, while half a dozen heartier dishes, also "for sharing," could work as individual entrees if you're especially ravenous.

Macaroni and cheese was a big hit with my dining companions — a complex blend of cheeses with some crispy prosciutto and herbed breadcrumbs for texture and depth of flavor. Lobster was a tasty optional add-on. Everyone also delighted in gooey sticks of panko-and walnut-crusted fontina, served with a yin-yang of dips: roasted pepper and cinnamon-tinged roasted pear.

Panini bites were good — basically a ciabatta sandwich with grilled pear, Taleggio, prosciutto, arugula, and honey, cut into four pieces — but stuffed Medjool dates were downright scrumptious. Each one was plump with Schreiner's chorizo and cap of melted Gruyère, the spiciness of the sausage mellowed by candy-like dried fruit and buttery cheese.

Fried clam cakes were a pleasant surprise, fluffy little fritters served with horseradish red pepper dip and a big bowl of thick, sweet corn chowder. The only problem was that the chowder was so good — and so difficult to share. Who wants to divvy up chowder amongst a group? Do you double-dip? It tasted great with the clam cakes but would've made more sense à la carte.

Guilty pleasures obviously rule here, but there were also some lighter items. I got my veggie fix with a refreshing salad of baby greens, sliced blood orange, fennel, avocado, and tangy vinaigrette, as well as a lovely dish of roasted red and yellow baby beets in a delicate, delicious mustard cream sauce. Mmm, beets.

Red beans and rice, heavy on the beans, had a texture verging on creaminess, and was served in a huge bowl topped with a link of linguisa sausage and a skewer of grilled shrimp dusted with hot Creole spices. Maple-roasted pork tenderloin was flavorful, too, but a touch more done than I would've liked. And its side of Gorgonzola grits pretty much went uneaten when I realized it was just a bland bowl of grits with a few crumbles of cheese on top. I'd hoped for something blended and better seasoned.

Citrus-brined fried chicken was another hit. First time I tried it . . . Well, let's just say that the kitchen had work to do. I waited a couple of months before ordering it again and was much more pleased the second time around. Three big pieces of chicken were juicy and piping hot, coated in a tasty, crunchy batter. Two white cheddar waffles — fragrant and crisp, with almost a mashed potato texture inside — made a fine side dish. Another side, braised greens, was more of an acquired taste, with a touch of spice and a sweetness that reminded me of molasses.

But it was easy to love the spiced skirt steak, perfectly medium-rare and salted just right. Sautéed mushrooms and chunky Parmesan lentil mashed Yukons rounded out the classic meat-and-potatoes combo. I felt the same about the fish and chips, a weekly special that I'd be happy to see on the regular menu. The ultra-fresh fish was succulent, clad in a golden shell of crispy, mouthwatering fried batter and teamed with kicky sriracha tartar sauce, while the "chips" were the same patatas bravas available as a starter — thick potato planks with spicy tomato dip.

End-of-the-meal sweets vary from day to day, but from the taste of one night's moist, sweet date pudding and decadent double chocolate brownie (topped with whipped cream and a date-studded wine-reduction), I'd say you're in good hands. And be sure to save one last bite for the freebie balls of chocolate-covered chocolate chip cookie dough that arrive with the check.

If those aren't enough to sway the grumpy locals, nothing is.

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miles
Tuck Shop

2245 N. 12th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85006

602-354-2980

www.tuckinphx.com


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