Why is airport food so often terrible?
That was the question in the air not very long ago, as I watched my traveling companion succumb to a nasty case of food poisoning — as if there were any other kind. The salmonella was eventually traced to a vaguely soggy $10 chicken salad sandwich purchased in a small, half-empty annex terminal of the Miami International Airport. In hindsight, it should have been clear that this overpriced, Saran-wrapped, smallish lump of food was going to cause a disproportionate amount of trouble. The lesson here is painfully obvious: Avoid eating graying, picked-over sandwiches sold at half-empty airport terminals, no matter how ravenous you are for something more than pretzels and honey-roasted peanuts. Some may argue that you should avoid airport dining altogether, if what you really want is a good, honest meal.
For decades, airport dining has been dominated by soggy sandwiches and other pre-packaged, soulless foodstuff. In many smaller airports and ghost-town annex terminals, it still is. But there’s been a big push in recent years to revamp the image of airport food, with airlines and hospitality groups pouring millions into remaking the airport into a destination for gourmet and locavore dining. This bold new world of airport dining is aimed at increasingly time-strapped and food-obsessed travelers who want to “eat local,” all while remaining tucked inside the clamorous bubble of speed and anxiety that is today’s modern international airport.
At Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, one of the busiest airports in the nation for passenger traffic, Terminal 4 is the nexus of locavore airport dining. There you can sip on a Four Peaks ale, eat the Stetson Chopped Salad from Cowboy Ciao, pack away some sugar cookies from Tammie Coe Cakes, or sample the menus of more than a dozen other Phoenix-based restaurants that have satellite locations scattered throughout the terminal, in both pre- and post-security lounge areas.
But how closely do these restaurants come in approximating the menu, flavor, and value of their sometimes-infamous brick-and-mortar counterparts? Ambiance, of course, is not to be found inside a generic food court. But does the food itself taste as good — or at least close — to what you’ll find outside the airport’s sliding glass doors?
Phoenix’s iconic soul food chain, Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles, and Gilbert’s beloved barbecue restaurant, Joe’s Real BBQ, both have food counters inside the pre-security area of Terminal 4. And if we may extrapolate from these two airport dining hot spots — and visits to their storefront locations — it’s safe to say that there’s just nothing like the real thing.
If you’re passing through Sky Harbor and find yourself with a hankering for barbecue, the BBQ Sampler Plate at Joe’s Real BBQ is probably the thing calling your name. It comes loaded with almost a pound of various glistening meats: St. Louis-style ribs, sliced chicken breast, pulled pork and beef brisket, plus your choice of side, all of it doused in a sweet-peppery homemade barbecue sauce, if requested.
At the airport, the brisket is sliced right in front of you, which sort of helps approximate the feeling of a being in a real-life barbecue joint. On a recent visit, though, the brisket was slightly fatty in places and chewy everywhere else — not bad, but not nearly as meltingly soft and fall-apart tender as what you’ll get at the Gilbert location.
Other items failed to translate in the airport setting: slices of chicken breast were well-seasoned, but a little dry, and the pulled pork was bland and spongey. The ribs fared best of all, meaty and tender enough that you could pull the bones right out, and equally delicious in both settings. Overall, though, the smokier, more tender, and more flavorful meats were to be found at the Gilbert location.
On the bright side, chunky mac ’n’ cheese, sweet cut corn, and thick-sauced house BBQ pit beans don’t vary much from location to location. The restaurant’s cornbread, though, on a recent visit, was noticeably drier at the airport. But you can make up the difference with the restaurant’s wonderful lemon cake, a moist, sugary cube with a lip-puckering, sweet-tart intensity. It’s excellent at both locations.
A notable difference is price: the sampler plate at the airport costs $13.79, about a dollar more than what you’ll pay for it at the Gilbert location.
At the airport location of Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles, the Phoenix soul food icon has a menu scaled down to about one-third of its original size, and you can expect to pay about a buck more for many items. You won’t find Lo-Lo delicacies like fried gizzards, or the popular all-day breakfast menu.
But you’ll find decent takes on starters and sides like deep-fried okra and mac ’n’ cheese. These don’t vary substantially in flavor, but the dishes suffer from the absence of Lo-Lo’s hot sauce on the tables at the airport. Those golden-brown fried okra balls were made for the stuff.
At the airport location, Lo-Lo classics like the Phat Azz Samich are front and center. The fried chicken sandwich (catfish is an option at brick-and-mortar locations, but not here) features an immense, fried chicken breast, bulging and juicy, topped with cheese, bacon, lettuce, and tomato. If you’re a fan of the sandwich, the version offered at the airport is credible. The chicken breast is very juicy, the bacon vaguely crisp, and the thin, bready sesame bun dampens quickly, as is to be expected, soaking up dribbles of juice and melted cheese that otherwise threaten to run down your arm. But the sandwich, overall, tastes better outside the airport — the bacon is snappier, and the chicken is even juicier.
A classic fried chicken and waffle combo, the Lo-Lo's Platter, comes pretty close to the archetypal restaurant version. The chicken is coated in the restaurant’s signature crisp and buttery light breading, slightly fragrant of clean oil, and nicely, subtly seasoned. The waffles, though, are notably thinner and floppier at the airport. This may not be a deal-breaker for you, but it’s not good news for those of us who live to soak them in butter and syrup.
No one will probably find it shocking that most food simply tastes better coming out of a full-size, fully equipped kitchen. Airport food, even when it channels the best of our local food scene, still can’t replicate the alchemy that happens inside a neighborhood restaurant.
There is the real matter of ambiance, a difficult thing to translate or reproduce on any level. The food at Joe’s Real BBQ seems best savored inside the old church on Gilbert Road, its cafeteria-style dining room channeling small-town Americana in a way that makes people come for the barbecue and stay for the nostalgia. And part and parcel of the experience of dining at Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles, especially the flagship location on Central Avenue, is the pleasure of eating amid family and old-time neighbors on a Sunday morning.
Maybe an airplane ticket wasn’t destined to make a great meal ticket.
Joe’s Real BBQ
301 North Gilbert Road, Gilbert
Hours: Open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Airport prices: BBQ sampler plate $13.79
Pork ribs $14.29
Lemon cake $3.89
Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles
1220 South Central Avenue
Hours: Monday through Thursday 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
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Airport prices: Okra $4.50
Lo-Lo’s plate $14.50
Phat Azz Samich $13
Mac ’n’ cheese $4.50