It’s hard to resist the charms of American Way Market Café, the casual eatery and small artisanal food marketplace located inside the Merchant Square Antiques mall in Chandler.
Part bakery, part smokehouse, part ode to vintage Americana, the first thing you may notice about the dining room at American Way is that it practically glows with the warmth of reclaimed wood and Main Street nostalgia.
In fact, stepping into American Way can feel a bit like a Pleasantville time warp, the dining room sort of an airy, living patchwork of vintage artifacts. There’s a red brick wall that frames the café’s main entrance, the stonework sourced from a long-gone egg hatchery in Tempe. There are handsome, sturdy wooden chairs with curved backs, said to be at least 60 years old, which once graced a California schoolhouse. There are several colorful vintage soda-shop signs on the café walls, sourced from as far away as Idaho, and an impressive selection of novelty soda-pop bottles, which are organized neatly on artfully weathered shelves. And there is the café’s signature American Way Market sign, a little rusty around the edges, which was repurposed (like the café’s name) from the original American Way Market grocery store in central Phoenix.
Just to add another layer of hazy, dreamy nostalgia to the scene, a few strings of twinkly lights are draped gracefully across the dining room, their low-wattage glow burning at all hours of the day.
It’s clear that the team behind the American Way Market Café, which includes owner Mike Wood and general manager and resident baker Jared Allen, have designed American Way not as a snack bar or coffee stop, but as a full-fledged destination for breakfast or lunch. Breakfast, it should be noted, still leans more toward pastries and coffee. But during the lunch window, the American Way menu is a reliable source for classic, high-quality smokehouse sandwiches, flatbread pizzas, salads, and soups.
What sets American Way apart from other sandwich and coffee shops is an obvious devotion to craft — pretty much everything here is made from scratch. The meats are smoked on-site (in keeping with café’s repurposing theme, the house smoker was salvaged from Mesa’s now-defunct Bill Johnson's Big Apple Restaurant), and all the breads on the menu are baked at the café. The bakery space, situated just off the main kitchen, is partly visible through a small glass window, so it’s not unusual for shoppers to catch a glimpse of the baker on duty preparing the next batch of Allen’s Proof brand artisan bread.
The Proof bread, which makes an appearance in nearly every dish, is at the heart of the American Way menu. Allen’s bread is notable for its use of wild yeast, the natural leavening agents helping produce slightly sturdier and stretchier loaves, with more complex flavors, than your average commercial yeast bread. Allen, whose bread has become a staple at the Gilbert Farmers Market, was a finalist in Martha Stewart’s American Made contest last year, a competition that recognizes artisans and producers making high-quality goods.
It goes without saying, then, you’ll probably come to American Way with the intention of indulging in the timeless gift of homemade, slowly fermented bread. This is not the best or easiest place to shun carbs, although there are salad options on the menu, in case you are. Still, one of the simplest and most satisfying meals at American Way is the smoked turkey sandwich, built using thick-cut slices of the bakery’s sourdough bread. The bread, pleasantly soft and springy, is layered with moist, flavorful slices of the thin-cut turkey, the meat nicely slathered in a fresh dill aioli and topped with a slice of vaguely piquant peppadew Havarti, which helps add some savory depth to every bite. It’s very good and very simple, which might be the definition of a perfect sandwich.
You might say the same thing about the house tri-tip sandwich, which looks rather modest when it arrives on your plate. The sandwich is made with thin-cut slices of the smoked sirloin steak, the beef notably moist and tender, and brightened up with fresh chimichurri sauce and a cap of Monterey Jack cheese. This sandwich’s main offense is that it doesn’t come with more of that smoky, succulent tri-tip steak.
Pulled pork, meanwhile, is tender and lush, its flavor both heightened and balanced by a thick cap of sweet barbecue sauce and a nicely tart heap of homemade coleslaw. The meltingly soft bundle of meat and sauce comes sandwiched in between two thick, caramel-colored hunks of fresh brioche bread, which lends the dish more heft than some of the other sandwich options.
The smoked meat sandwiches at American Way are excellent, but serious carb aficionados should also take note of the café’s flatbread pizzas. Flatbreads, at their worst, are the sort of thing that haunt bad happy-hour menus: thinner than a deck of playing cards, flabby both in texture and flavor. Fortunately, the American Way flatbread is far more generous and substantial, built on thick, pillowy slabs of dough, and sliced into small, sturdy wedges. There are flatbreads garnished with toppings both conventional (pepperoni slices and tomato sauce) and fanciful (roasted corn and goat cheese flatbread, sweetened by a drizzle of agave nectar). Each is delicious in its own right, but try the mushroom trio for a savory, well-balanced blend of earthy mushrooms, truffle oil, and balsamic glaze.
Lighter options include an excellent curry chicken salad, which you’ll find listed under the sandwich menu because, technically, it’s an open-faced sandwich. But you’ll notice it looks much more like a potato salad on your plate, a creamily yellow mélange of diced chicken, celery, apple, and onion. The Indian-inspired dressing, which is a sort of slightly zesty and cumin-tinged secret sauce, is a small global excursion on an otherwise very middle-American menu.
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If you decide to order your sandwich or salad with a cup of soup, the thing to get is the thick cheddar ale soup, which is as defiantly rich as it sounds. Or, you can leave room to explore the pastry case, which is usually stocked with signature American Way bakery items like homemade Pop Tarts and Allen’s famous pain au chocolat — a delectable treat that’s hard to come by if you happen to arrive too late in the day. At worst, you’ll be left to make due with a stale cookie for dessert, which was the case on a recent late-afternoon lunch visit. This is a small price to pay, though, for lunch at American Way Market Café.
American Way Market Café
1509 N. Arizona Avenue, Chandler
Hours: Mondays through Saturdays 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; closed Sundays
Pulled pork sandwich $8
Smokehouse turkey sandwich $7.50
Curry chicken sandwich $8
Mushroom trio flatbread $8