Last week, the Cactus League got off to a soggy start, and so did my efforts to find decent eats near one of the meccas of springtime desert baseball, the Peoria Sports Complex. The results, you'll know if you've been paying attention, were disappointing: Despite a superabundance of eateries near the ballpark, there was little to cheer in the way of eats.
I was hoping for better luck as I set out to find sustenance near another of the Valley's spring diamonds, Tempe Diablo Stadium. As I understand it, lots of folks were excited about last week's debut of play by the Anaheim Angels, home team of the Diablo complex. I researched this phenomenon, and was impressed to find out that these guys won last year's World Series. Which I guess is a pretty big deal (belated congrats all around!). Obviously, baseball isn't my passion. But given the team's honor, I'll say this: I might consider napping on the five-bucks-a-butt lawn through an afternoon game, assuming the sun is shining, and I've got absolutely nothing else to do.
And if I do, I'll have a better chance of filling my belly with something edible than I did in Peoria. I managed to find three mostly worthwhile restaurants within spitting distance of the Angels' home plate. These places -- one new, one not-so-new, and one pretty old -- share common attractions. They're casual. They're convenient. And they're cheap. One place, Jay's, is even good enough that I'll be finding excuses to be in the neighborhood as often as possible.
Jay's Gyros / George Saturday, 6 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Greek salad: $5.49/$2.75
Italian beef: $4.99
George Dinner,Monday through Friday, 2:30 to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Roast beef platter: $5.95
Cornish pastie platter: $5.95
Shepherd's pie platter: $5.95
Spotted Dick: $4.25
2000 Westcourt Way, Tempe
602-431-2367 Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Lunch buffet: $12.95
Lobster bisque: $4
Turkey club: $9.50
Jay's Gyros has been serving up its fine Chicago-Greek fare since 1999, though honestly, I'd never before noticed the tiny storefront next to a check-cashing place and a discount cigarette store. This is my kind of dive, though, down to the bare concrete floors, counter service and plastic tables. It's our very own "cheezbugher, cheezbugher, Pepsi, Pepsi" kind of spot, with staff yelling out orders to the kitchen and pickup numbers to the rest of us.
I know what I want as soon as I lay eyes on the gyro rotisseries in the back. A cook is carving long curls of pressed beef and lamb from the spits, and the meat glistens with its intense oregano-infused juices. He piles great mounds of it on fresh-grilled pita bread, tops it with ruby-red tomato, white onion curls and tzatziki (cucumber-yogurt sauce). I take my paper basket to a table and gorge, alternating bites with crisp salty fries, and an excellent Greek salad brimming with tangy feta. My baseball buddy, initially complaining about being dragged all through this industrial park area in search of lunch, is now thrilled at his good fortune. His steak sandwich features an honest-to-bejesus entire rib eye, six glorious ounces charbroiled before our eyes, then capped with lettuce, tomato, onions and mayo on French bread. Incredible pay dirt for just $5.99. It doesn't take much excuse to bring us back later for fine, fat Italian beef and Philly cheese steak sandwiches, a turkey sub with real oven-roasted breast meat, chicken gyros fashioned from grilled-to-order whole breasts, a fresh-cooked bacon double cheeseburger, or a plump meatball sub under a cap of mozzarella.
If George & Dragon weren't so full of cigarette smoke, I'd make it a regular pit stop, too. G&D is known to fans of British pub food since it opened at Central and Indian School more than eight years ago. Last fall, owner David Wimberley opened a second location in the unlikely spot of the Hampton Inn at 48th Street and Broadway. Part of his plan, he says, is exactly that pesky smoke, since his zip code places him right across the street from the now-smoking-banned Tempe.
Wimberley has kept his pub focus here, offering me and the hordes of blue-collar-type folk packing in at the noon hour some comfortable, laid-back digs. There's a pleasing seedy underbelly; we can play a game of pool while waiting the few minutes it takes to get our order up, select some tunes on a jukebox, or pretend we're royalty against a wall of castle-style fake rock. More than a few of my new pub pals are taking advantage of the Dragon's enormous beer, wine and specialty drink list (it spans 12 full pages, with fun concoctions like the Scooby Snack, blending Malibu rum, Midori, milk and 7-Up).
G&D doesn't pretend to be gourmet, not apologizing for sending out from-the-freezer-bag French fries and peas, I'd-be-surprised-if-they're-from-scratch mashed potatoes and thick brown gravy, and store-bought dinner rolls with foil pats of butter. But there's no faulting the comfort factor and the remarkable value of eight daily lunch plates (plus a daily special like "mum's meatloaf") for just $5.95. I'm staggering under the weight of my plate of tasty thin-sliced roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, roll and wickedly pungent horseradish. Baseball buddy gives it a good shot, but can't finish his Cornish pastie platter, either, centering on a hefty, flaky pastry stuffed with herb-marinated ground beef, diced potato, carrots and peas. And I'll definitely be taking that nap on the lawn after working my way through shepherd's pie, bloated with ground beef, onions and peas under a boatload of buttered mashed potatoes, melted Cheddar and gravy. Fish and chips are the lightest feed here, and it's fine fish, the moist cod fillet blanketed in crispy beer batter. The plate almost leaves enough belly room to finish up with spotted dick, a British dessert of yellow sponge pudding with sultanas (golden grapes), raisins and currants topped with warm English custard.
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Baseball buddy is excited to be going to Market Café, the most obvious outside-the-park dining choice (it's in the Wyndham Buttes Resort on the mountain overlooking the stadium). He remembers it fondly from a decade ago, when it was a Valley hot spot for its wonderful Sunday brunch.
Time hasn't been kind to this grande dame, however -- the big dining room with its dramatic 30-foot waterfall splashing into a koi pond is in serious need of renovation. Tables are scuffed, fabrics have faded, and the buffet setup is low-class coffee shop. Still, we're here simply for cheap eats, and the Market fits the bill nicely. Baseball buddy is drawn to the buffet, with its serviceable array of green salad, marinated mushrooms and artichokes, pasta and potato salads, and fresh fruit. Second course finds him filling up on truly good white bean, lentil and ham soup, while third course gives him a variety of not great but good-enough-to-get-him-through-a-game entrees like grilled sirloin and shrimp in port wine sauce, baked salmon in tomato cream and shrimp pasta pomodoro.
I have less luck with my regular menu item of lobster bisque – it's horrid, greasy and clumpy, tasting of ammonia and served with entirely inelegant Keebler oyster crackers. My turkey club is fine after I quickly pluck the bizarre skewering of raw rosemary sprigs from the bread (who wants the plant oil seeping into their applewood smoked bacon)? The Market does a competent take on its cheeseburger, too, serving it large and loaded with Dijon, mayo, tomato and pickles alongside fries that would be fine if they weren't weirdly sprinkled with shredded Parmesan.
The Angels play through March 27. Most of the games begin at 1:05 p.m. If I start my day at 11 a.m., that gives me two hours to stuff myself silly. With just enough time to get to the stadium and not miss my nap.