Cafe Reviews

32 Shea: Coziness, Comfort, Coffee, and Killer Cocktails

32 Shea is the kind of restaurant where you could easily spend hours — the temperature is perfect, the seating comfortable, and its small size means the occupation of a few tables or barstools creates an intimate scene almost immediately. One might even feel, upon opening the door to its bustling, dimly lit room awash in conversation, music, and aromas from the kitchen, an urge to wipe one's feet and wave a cheerful greeting before finding a chair. It rings that familiar.

A standalone building in the parking lot of a strip mall on 32nd Street and Shea, the intersection from which the eatery gets its name, 32 Shea is an oasis of sorts. In an area of North Phoenix my friend from Sunnyslope calls the "Sunnyslope of Paradise Valley," the structure's wraparound banner of small, colorfully lit squares serves as a kind of beacon for area residents seeking a nice little neighborhood spot for breakfast, lunch, or dinner and drinks — a place where the food, like the restaurant, is unpretentious, welcoming, and worth a return visit.

There is a drive-thru where chai lattes pass through the window before the workday begins and a nice little patio (larger than the restaurant, actually) where pals and, if they wish, their pooches can take in some midday rays and nourishment. But it is at night — sitting at one of a handful of dark wood tables, or the small bar, inside the gray room with lazily spinning ceiling fans, a décor composed of local art and in-view beer-case storage, and an eclectic mix of music overhead — that the little cafe feels the most big-city.

Owner Rebecca Golden says she hears that a lot. In 2010, she took a few months to remodel the 672-square-foot former coffee shop into her first restaurant, officially opening in January of this year. This was her dream since she moved to the Valley from Las Cruces, New Mexico, more than 15 years ago; Golden worked as a web and graphic designer and as a server for Tesoro Ristorante Italiano in North Phoenix before enough extra cash and experience serendipitously met with her noticing the building's "For Lease" sign out front.

Inspired by some of her favorite restaurants, including The Main Ingredient, Postino and La Grande Orange, Golden wanted 32 Shea to be more than a quick coffee stop. She wanted a neighborhood hangout. So when her liquor license came through in the spring, she added cocktails, wine, and craft beer and created a small menu of easy and affordable dishes that her just-over-100-square-foot kitchen could accommodate.

And though dinner might be a relatively new venture, breakfast is solid — a brisk business. In addition to several types of coffee (with beans courtesy of local roaster Matador), there are smoothies, just-baked muffins and pastries, and such tasty a.m. treats as a flaky croissant sandwich filled with egg, cheese, and crispy bacon, and a satisfying New Mexico burrito, with the same ingredients plus potatoes, creamy avocado, and a slightly spicy green salsa.

And for those who consider the hazelnut spread Nutella to be the edible version of a double rainbow, Golden will put it in your mocha or hot chocolate, spread it warm on toasted bread with fresh bananas in a morning indulgence called "Yummy, Yummy in My Tummy," or serve it up as an evening dessert deliciously oozing over a creamy slice of mascarpone cheesecake.

For lunch, there is a nice chicken raspberry salad with walnuts, apples, and a generous helping of fresh slices of Gorgonzola in a light raspberry vinaigrette dressing. It's better than the tuna chop, in which an attempt at using diced green apples in the tuna mixture falls short — their scarcity keeps the creation on the bland side. There's also a selection of sandwiches under the heading "wichcraft." Served on ciabatta bread with a handful of hearty potato chips, the stacked turkey with avocado is average; there's a good caprese and a better roast beef with melted Muenster cheese and creamy horseradish; but the clear winner is appropriately named The OMG. Featuring prosciutto, mascarpone, and figs, its simple ingredients combine to deliver a sophisticated flavor and a satisfying noontime snack or as one of the better bruschetta selections at dinnertime.

And if you happen upon 32 Shea for nighttime noshing, the bruschetta is a solid selection. Utilizing the ciabatta bread from the sandwiches, the best flavor combinations include the OMG ingredients; goat cheese and dried cranberry; and feta, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and pepperoncini. Better yet and totally shareable is the light yet wonderfully creamy artichoke and spinach dip, with a pinch or two of tarragon and a top roasted like a marshmallow.

Like most everything at 32 Shea, meals stay on the manageable side, with lunchtime salads and sandwiches still available at dinner in addition to starters and small plates. Roast beef sliders unfortunately lacked in roast beef and a worthy au jus, but the mango shrimp, despite its unusual presentation — large shrimp, mango salsa, and pieces of bread stuffed tightly into a tapered glass — reveals a big payoff in its spicy-meets-fruity fresh flavors.

Two selections that change nightly (aptly named the "entrée of the moment" and the "crispy lavosh pizza of the moment") are the most challenging for the kitchen, Golden says. Indeed, they proved to be hit-and-miss on my visits. My "moment" of pizza was a ho-hum white pie that my guests were slow to finish, and the side of rice on my entrée of the moment, a somewhat dry spicy chicken breast, was so woefully undercooked it proved to be inedible.

But despite some of the dinner road bumps, one can find solace in a cocktail or two from 32 Shea. They are boozy and marvelous, making their way to your seat in a kind of dance, weaving their way around tables and other servers until they arrive fruity and fresh, especially the smashed blueberry and vodka, the pineapple rum mojito, or my favorite, the sweet-n-sour gimlet, heavy with basil. The herb was picked moments earlier by my server, who ran out to the patio garden to pluck a few leaves.

"Sorry about the wait," she apologized, the scent around her strong with the basil's invigorating aroma.

"No worries," I said. "I'm planning on staying here for a while."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld