When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: Handlebar Diner
Location: 5149 South Inspirian Way, Mesa
Open: Less than a week
Eats: Creative diner fare, often with a Southern twist
Eastmark, the large-scale master-planned community located in southeast Mesa, got its first homegrown restaurant this week.
It's not just any restaurant, though. This is an 11-seat Valentine-style diner, not unlike the vintage mobile unit that houses Welcome Diner in downtown Phoenix. The new restaurant is called Handlebar Diner, and it represents a collaboration between Scottsdale-based builder DMB and chef Adam Allison and Kyle Hollenbeck, both seasoned food truck restaurateurs.
A new restaurant might not be such huge news in other parts of town, but it's a big deal in burgeoning Eastmark. The community is still rather new and isolated, and going out to eat in these parts usually requires driving up into the more established sections of east Mesa, or else to neighboring Gilbert, Chandler, and Queen Creek.
Handlebar Diner, thankfully, already feels like it's pretty much firing on all cylinders, and it seems likely that it will become a favorite gathering spot for the neighborhood. And for those of us who live far from the master-planned world of Eastmark, the Handlebar menu and setting are both unique and interesting enough to merit a visit when you're in the East Valley.
The small, boxy, candy-cane-colored structure that houses Handlebar Diner was shipped to Mesa from Colorado a few months ago, then installed on a lot adjacent to the Eastmark Visitor and Community Center near the intersection of Ray and Ellsworth roads.
The diner might technically be decades old, but it looks shiny and new at its new Eastmark digs. There isn't much space to sit inside, but if you do manage to score a diner seat, you'll have a view of a full bar behind the counter.
Most of the seating is outdoors, though, where you'll find a pleasant courtyard populated by a handful of shaded picnic tables. There is also a long bar with metal stools offering views of the Eastmark Great Park. There is currently no restroom on-site, but you can use the nearby restrooms at the Eastmark Visitor and Community Center.
The menu serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, offering modern diner fare with the occasional Southern or global twist. For breakfast, Handlebar serves house-made pastries, bagels, breakfast burritos, and sandwiches. There's also an extensive weekend brunch menu with hashes, omelets, and egg plates.
If you swing by for lunch or dinner, most of the menu consists of salads, sandwiches, and burgers. After 4 p.m., though, the menu gets a little more Southern, with entrees like buttermilk fried chicken and smoked ribs.
On a recent lunch visit, I started with one of the more intriguing-sounding of the house appetizers — loaded, house-made tater tots, executed in either "East" or "West" style. The West version offers a Southwestern take, with toppings like summer corn, black bean relish, and queso fundido.
I opted for the East version, which features soft, crackly tater tots drizzled with very lightly spicy gochujang aioli, and a sunny-side egg embellished with some vaguely fishy furikake, a Japanese seasoning. Oh yeah, and pork belly — lots of hunks of grizzled, chewy, fatty, wonderful pork belly. The dish offers a satisfying balance of flavor and texture that's half-diner, half-hipster food truck, but mostly just very delicious.
From the burger menu, the Handlebar Burger offers up a half-pound of Angus beef smothered in lots of melted white American cheese and ringlets of grilled onions. As far as burgers go, this one hits all the right pleasure points, the beefy patty melding beautifully with the sweet-savory onions, and everything nicely buoyed by the diner's tangy comeback sauce.
It comes with your choice of house-made chips, fries, or fruit. The fries at Handlebar are not yet wholly satisfying, though — they're thick-cut and nicely seasoned, but some of the fries on my plate were a little over-crisped and hard to chew.
From the sandwich menu, there's the H&S, a sort of upgraded take on the classic ham and Swiss sandwich. It comes generously crammed full of thinly sliced Black Forest ham and seasonal greens, which are stacked in between two buttery slices of toasted bread. The sandwich leans a little dry, but that's easily fixed with your condiment of choice.
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If there's an early contender for the most memorably named sandwich of the year in metro Phoenix, it might be Handlebar Diner's crispy Buffalo chicken sandwich, which is called Boy I Love Losing Super Bowls. Even if you're a long-suffering Bills fan, it's hard not to feel cheery while eating this particular sandwich. The fried chicken is tossed in Buffalo sauce and then glossily shellacked with some pepper jack cheese. It's really a great chicken sandwich, the chicken breast both crispy and tender, with a vinegary kick that's just the right amount of spicy. Some farm greens help keep the richness of the sandwich in balance.
The menu at Handlebar Diner is expansive enough to keep even repeat visitors on their toes. And one of the more intriguing elements of the restaurant is still in the works. A small farm, located on-site, will supply fresh produce and ingredients to the Handlebar Diner kitchen starting later this year.
It will be interesting to see how the menu changes as the farm-to-table element really takes hold. In the meantime, Handlebar Diner seems to be making itself right at home in the neighborhood, and its intriguing menu of creative and modern diner fare gives all of us one more excuse to head to the East Valley.