Uptown Plaza — the landmark midcentury shopping center at the intersection of Central Avenue and Camelback Road in Phoenix — has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years.
With an enviable location in the heart of the affluent north-central Phoenix corridor, coupled with its appealing midcentury design, Uptown Plaza has become the object of aggressive redevelopment and restoration efforts. Over the past three or four years, its dingy veneer of ’70s-era stucco has been chipped away, and its original red brick walls have been unearthed and restored to their former glory. Even with a few lingering pieces of scaffolding here and there, Uptown Plaza hasn’t looked so shiny in decades.
The shopping center has attracted prominent out-of-state restaurant concepts, including Shake Shack and Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, both of which made their Phoenix debut at the plaza last year. And now there’s Elly’s Brunch & Cafe, another Chicagoland import, which opened at Uptown Plaza in May.
The menu at Elly’s isn’t overtly regional, though, favoring instead staples that will be recognizable to pretty much anyone familiar with the concept of brunch. Pancakes, French toast, fruit-stuffed crepes, omelets, frittatas, waffles, and specialty mimosas — these are the building blocks of a memorable brunch at Elly’s. The restaurant also serves a full lunch menu, and there’s a small coffee and pastry bar at the front of the restaurant where you can grab drinks and snacks to go.
Perhaps not surprisingly, considering its trendy location, the dining room at Elly’s is sleek and pleasant, with a crisp, modern orange-white color scheme, shiny concrete floors, and high, unfinished ceilings. The room’s natural airiness is complemented by a shaded sidewalk patio, which is stylishly bordered by succulent-laden planters. Service at Elly’s is generally very good, running the gamut from quiet and polite to downright ebullient. Almost every seat in the house offers views of the open kitchen, where you see how hard the kitchen hustles to dispatch food efficiently, especially at the height of a Sunday Funday brunch service.
Elly’s is a pleasant brunch parlor in a pleasant part of town, and it fits right into Uptown Plaza’s upmarket scene. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy restaurant to love, though. For all its bright and polished sheen — and its extensive catalog of buttermilk pancakes — the experience of dining at Elly’s is too often unexceptional. Sometimes it’s downright forgettable.
There is nothing forgettable about a dish like the baked apple pancake, though, which is one of the restaurant’s specialty baked pancakes. You can order it large or small, but even small, it’s notably substantial; one order easily serves two or three. It takes about 40 minutes to cook, but it’s worth waiting around for this gorgeous, Frisbee-size pancake, which has a thick, golden crust that yields to a soft, bread pudding-like center. The pancake is flush with caramelized, cinnamon-tossed slivers of apples, the kind of Sunday morning dish you daydream about all week.
Elly’s has also become known for its classic buttermilk pancakes, and they live up to expectation: oversize and perfectly round, with a measured sweetness and velvety quality that makes them almost dangerously palatable. You could work through a stack of these pretty quickly.
Waffles, too, are worth the caloric investment. A sweet-savory bacon waffle, especially, is a highlight. The spongy, extra-thick waffle is embedded with smoked, caramelized bits of bacon, a nice counterpoint to its natural sweetness.
If your brunch preferences run more savory than sweet, Elly’s offers more than two dozen different egg dishes. This is part of the menu, however, is more uneven.
The Southwest omelet, on a recent visit, bulged generously with scraps of applewood bacon, diced tomatoes, and jalapenos. The omelet was well-seasoned, but it had a thick, rubbery quality that detracted from its overall appeal. It reminded me of a thick egg scramble that’s been half-heartedly poured into a cooking mold. If you’re hungering for something lighter and refined — an omelet that looks like it might have been gently flipped and folded over — this is not it.
A Provence-themed Benedict? The dish sounds promising, and on a recent visit, it was generously accessorized with slices of avocado, tomato, and savory wild mushrooms, which were spread over a sliced, flattened, griddle-crisped croissant. The dish’s downfall was an overly assertive Hollandaise, though, a tart, lemony sauce that overpowered the other ingredients.
There are several lighter breakfast options at Elly’s, including a sweet potato bowl. The bowl of brown rice tossed with bits of kale and diced sweet potatoes was wrapped in a nutty coconut sauce and topped with two poached eggs. It was hearty and wholesome on a recent visit, but also irredeemably bland.
Chilaquiles verdes, though, are a late-morning highlight. Softly cooked tortilla strips are layered elegantly on a frying pan and steeped in a wonderfully tangy, salty salsa verde that’s laced with queso fresco. It’s a strong, bold take on the Mexican breakfast classic.
If you come to Elly’s for lunch, you’ll find a pretty extensive menu, comprised mostly of salads, wraps, sandwiches, and burgers. Of course, there’s also breakfast, which is available all day.
Highlights from the lunch menu include the Elly’s cheeseburger, which features an exceptionally thick, hand-packed beef patty, beautifully shellacked with a gloss of extra-sharp Wisconsin cheddar.
From the sandwich menu, there’s The Cristo, a delicious, extra-porky take on the classic Monte Cristo sandwich. The sandwich is packed with melty tendrils of shaved ham, which are crammed between two extra-thick, egg dipped slices of griddled bread. If you’re secretly craving French toast for lunch but can’t quite bring yourself to order breakfast in the afternoon, this sandwich might help fill the void.
Beyond the requisite array of thickly built, cheesy sandwiches, the appeal of lunch at Elly’s can start to dwindle. A gravlax quinoa bowl, on a recent lunch visit, featured impeccably cured strips of fresh, dill-scented salmon, which were layered over fresh salad greens. The quinoa part of the dish, however, was missing entirely from my plate.
Another light lunch option, stuffed avocado, might remind you of protein-heavy diet food. You choose between chicken or tuna salad, which is then scooped over a sliced, meaty avocado. The tableau is completed with a hard-boiled egg on the side, and some fresh fruit, which almost invariably means a slice of melon and cantaloupe.
On a recent visit, the chicken salad was seasoned nicely, but the thick, chalky clump of chicken, pasted together with mayonnaise, was not terribly appetizing. There was something joyless about the dish, as if assembled purely out of a need to meet a specific set of nutritional guidelines.
It’s tough to dismiss Elly’s Brunch & Cafe outright; sweet, carby breakfast dishes, especially, are done rigorously well. But even amid the ultra-fashionable surroundings of Phoenix’s Uptown Plaza, a meal at Elly’s doesn’t always shine.
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Elly’s Brunch & Cafe
100 East Camelback Road, #166
Hours: Daily from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Baked apple pancake $13
Chilaquiles verdes $10
Bacon waffle $11
The Cristo $10