Restaurant: American Way Market Cafe
Location: 1509 North Arizona Avenue, Chandler
Open: About nine weeks
Eats: Sandwiches, salads, flatbreads
If you find yourself in the Southeast Valley looking for a place to grab lunch, you might want to consider heading to Merchant Square Antique Mall. Not because of the 58,000 square feet of antiques and collectibles you'll find there, but rather because of the small restaurant hidden (albeit in somewhat plain sight) inside. Under a blue sign that says simply "Good Food," you'll find American Way Market Cafe, which might just be Chandler's best-kept secret right now.
The restaurant serves both breakfast and lunch from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily with a menu that includes locally roasted Peixoto Coffee and breads from baker Jared Allen's Proof Bakery. Fans of Allen's work —namely his excellent breads and pain au chocolat that earned him national recognition last year — will be happy to know his doughy creations serve as the base for much of the restaurant's menu. Allen also doubles as general manager.
For lunch, carb lovers could do much worse than one of American Way's flatbread pizzas. Served on a pillowy bread base, the mushroom trio flatbread ($8) came loaded with olive oil, mushrooms, truffle oil, and cheese. At the suggestion of the restaurant's owner, Mike Moore, we also added house-smoked pulled pork to the mix, balancing the richness of the mushrooms and truffle with bright barbecue sauce and chunks of smoky meat. We loved the flavor of the freshly made bread, which offered just the right amount of pull and was perfectly sturdy enough to support the sprinkling of smoked pork.
By the way, if at first glance it seems strange for a small cafe to dedicate a section its menu to items "From the Smokehouse," have no fear: American Way delivers. Just a few steps from the dining room, you'll find a massive meat smoker, which used to belong to the original Bill Johnson's Big Apple restaurant. The owner snagged it in an auction after the iconic Valley restaurant shuttered, and he even had a corrugated metal shelter built snugly around the metal machine. Moore plans to use it to smoke meats, fish, and just about anything else that strikes his fancy.
Case in point: The lunch special on our visit was a smoked egg salad. We only sampled the creamy mayo-based mixture but we were impressed with the subtle smokiness in each bite, mocking the flavor of bacon. Served on Allen's sliced sourdough with a leaf or two of lettuce, it would make for an excellent meal.
If you're looking for something a little lighter, or want to explore the menu, you can also create your own lunch combo with half a salad and half a sandwich of your choice for the remarkably low price of $7.50. We chose half a tri-tip sandwich, a simple but memorable combination of sliced tri-tip, chimichurri, cheese, and lettuce. The moist tri-tip was a refreshing break from what can so often be a dry, tough cut of meat — the secret to its success may be that American Way uses 30-day wet-aged beef that's smoked and then reheated just before being served between slices of fresh bread.
To pair, we tried the restaurant's American Harvest salad, a hearty combo of lettuce, roasted squash and beets, pumpkin seeds, and goat cheese. The highlight was the restaurant's housemade dressing, a creamy, garlicky creation that could convince just about anyone to love their greens.
To finish your meal, you can't beat a cup of Brazilian coffee roasted by and sourced from Peixoto Coffee in downtown Chandler. In addition to drip coffee, you can choose among several espresso drinks, which will pair nicely with one of the restaurant's freshly made pastries. You'll find Allen's well-loved croissants in the case (if you get there before they run out), or for something really sweet, try the salted caramel blondie. This baked dessert is a cocoa-free brownie so buttery and soft you'll need a fork with a salted caramel layer on top. It's almost tooth-achingly saccharine, but the flakes of sea salt rein in things just enough to provide balance.
The cafe also doubles as a sort of market (hence the name), with the main offering being hard-to-find craft and artisan sodas. In all, the small spot stocks more than 150 different types of sodas — everything from birch to chocolate — with plans to bring in at least a hundred more. A small selection of locally made jams and American Way T-shirts rounds out the market offerings for now, but the owner says he plans to add things like local cheese and other food products to the mix.
Longtime Valley diners might not be surprised to hear there's such good food to found at this particular antique mall. After all, this is the same place where Randy Walters started Pittsburgh Willy's, serving buttery chipped beef-topped dogs to food lovers in the know before going on to open Wimpy's Paradise in downtown Chandler. If history repeats itself, maybe there's a brick-and-mortar bakery in the future for Proof Bakery, but for now, we're just happy to be in on this delicious little secret.