Cafe Reviews

Buried Treasure

Quick — cue the menacing B-movie horror soundtrack so I can tear at my hair and shriek, "It's everywhere! Everywhere!"

That's how I feel when I'm behind the wheel, heading into yet another construction zone in some random part of town. I thought bumpy, torn-up roads, pylon obstacle courses, and slow-going detours were limited to Central Avenue (light rail), downtown (convention center expansion), and the heart of Tempe (more light rail). Oh, no — there's more. Traffic's been backed up around 24th Street and Camelback Road (a new overpass), and on various other streets, miles away from any apparent light-rail connection. Somehow, the whole Valley's getting a makeover.

But unlike the unsuspecting friends of a plastic surgery patient who disappears for a while before the bandages come off, we city dwellers have to watch the whole ugly process, crossing our fingers for a prettier outcome.

That's even the case at The Orange Table, a three-and-a-half-year-old neighborhood cafe in Old Town Scottsdale. Like getting around town these days, having a meal at The Orange Table can take a while, but it's definitely worth it. Tucked away in the Scottsdale Civic Center Plaza, behind an Indian restaurant and adjacent to Scottsdale Center for the Arts, the place has never had much visibility. But in September, the restaurant's landlord started tearing down a nearby building and making renovations to the patio out front, circling it with chain-link fencing and green mesh tarp.

Susan Speidel, who owns the restaurant with her brother Eric and her boyfriend Jeremiah Maloney, says the past few weeks have been tough.

"Our daytime business has been okay, but our nighttime business has severely dropped off," she says. "We started doing dinner a year ago, and we were finally starting to get people here at dinner, but then it dropped to nil."

This phase of the construction is supposed to be completed by the end of October, but Speidel is bracing herself for possible delays. Given the construction setbacks around town, she's smart.

When I visited on a recent weekend morning, The Orange Table was bustling with breakfast business. The cafe was steady but not swamped during a workday lunch, and practically deserted on a weeknight. No wonder — a small sign next to the Indian place was the only indication that there was another restaurant farther down the corridor. To make up for the temporary lack of a patio, there were tables lined up along the outside wall, a couple of them so far from the action that you could hardly see inside the cafe if you were seated there.

One day I ended up at one, with the construction mess in full view. Not appetizing.

I sympathized with Speidel's situation, though, and from what I tasted, the situation certainly hadn't affected the quality of the food. And for the majority of customers who got seated inside, there was a relaxed, cheerful atmosphere: walls painted bright red and deep pumpkin, hung with mod-looking paintings. Bottles of wine set on shiny orange tables (Speidel and her partners built much of the original furniture themselves). Cocoa-colored leather couches for lounging, and '80s New Wave on the sound system.

Let me be up-front about the service here. It is slow, anywhere from casually to excruciatingly. The wait staff is sweet and helpful, but the kitchen takes its good old time. The owners admit to it, though — the menu even explains that much of the food is house-made, it's prepared to order, and the quality is worth the wait. I have to agree. Don't go if you're in a hurry, especially at lunch. On the flip side, this is the kind of cafe where you can linger as long as you want without feeling like they're pointing at the door.

Breakfast here was so good that I can't wait to return. Before I got my caffeine fix, the menu looked like overchoice with so many waffles and breakfast sandwiches and omelets. After a few sips of a creamy, cinnamon-spiked Mexican chocolate latte, though, I decided on the white flannel corned beef hash. It combined thinly sliced corned beef, chopped mushrooms, garlic, potato chunks, and slivers of slightly caramelized onion fried and topped with a scoop of sour cream and a sprinkle of chives. Served with two eggs and toast, it was more than I could finish, hungry as I was. I also tried chocolate chip pancakes, made with homemade buttermilk batter. Filled with bits of semi-sweet Ghirardelli and doused with pure maple syrup, it was like dessert.

I was indecisive at lunch, too, faced with 31 different sandwiches, nine burgers, 10 salads, and still more. Somehow I landed on the Reuben, an old standby that, for me, can make or break a place. The Orange Table's version was killer — toasted rye piled high with corned beef (guess I've been in the mood for it), melted Swiss, a dab of Russian dressing, and sauerkraut that really caught my attention. It was less sour and had a more rustic, roughly cut texture than store-bought kraut. Sure enough, it was homemade.

I also liked the BLT, a hearty rendition with thick, crunchy strips of hickory-smoked bacon, and the Cortez, a grilled sourdough that contrasted smooth, seared yellowfin tuna and creamy avocado with crisp jicama and cool tomato.

In the evening, the lunch menu still applied, with a few extras. My waiter suggested the Tapis (one of the lavash pizzas only available after 5 p.m.), and I'm glad I took his recommendation. Baked in a large oval dish, the pizza had papery-thin layers of buttery pastry instead of a traditional crust, and underneath its gooey layer of cheese — a sophisticated blend of Swiss, provolone, Parmesan, and aged mozzarella — I tasted fresh garlic and tomato. Along with that, my friends and I nibbled on a generous plate of house-made hummus.

I was nearly full by the time my Arrogant Bastard Rustler cheeseburger showed up. As soon as I saw it, though, I caught a second wind. It was one of those towering monsters of a burger, the kind that you can hardly fit your hands around, with barbecue sauce and mayo squishing out from the enormous bun, and bacon and vegetables sliding around on a slick of melted provolone. Simmered in a splash of Arrogant Bastard Ale (I got the rest of the 22-ounce bottle for three bucks), the half-pound Angus patty was perfectly juicy, perfectly sloppy.

Finally, a mess to be happy about.