Battle of the Meatloaf

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We've been a little under the weather lately and craving comfort foods. Chicken and dumplings. Mashed potatoes. And meatloaf, which always manages to fill our hearts and our bellies with warm beefy joy whenever we're laid up with a cold.

This week, we got a double dose of our favorite comfort cure as we compared the meatloaf sandwiches at two local restaurants -- one Irish and one serving regional fare.

In One Corner: Regions Bistro & Bar
640 S. Mill Ave. in Tempe

Regions Bistro & Bar started off a little shaky, opening then closing then reopening under new management, all in 2009. The downtown Tempe location is contemporary and welcoming, with brown and green damask-printed banquettes, tons of windows and a huge bar that's open to the street on mild weather days.  

It's a great location, right in the heart of the Mill Avenue district at Sixth St. The only downside is that if you're sitting at the bar or one of the nearby high-tops on a nice day, the thick, unpleasant scent of cigars wafts over from the Churchill's cigar shop next door. Ugh. What good is the smoking ban if you still have to eat with cigar stink?

We ordered the Original Meatloaf Sandwich at lunchtime and our dish arrived open-faced with a heap of mashed potatoes and two crispy onion rings piled on top. Thick, near-black mushroom gravy was drizzled on the whole concoction. This was definitely a knife-and-fork sammy. We dug in to the thick slice of meatloaf, which was nicely flavored with mild spices. We were disappointed by the lack of carrots (and flavor) as compared with the Mom's Wild Mushroom Meatloaf dinner we'd had before at the Regions in Scottsdale.

"It's a little dry," remarked our dining companion. "But the gravy really helps. And one onion ring is plenty...this is too much." 

The loaf itself was a bit dehydrated, but as our friend pointed out the delicious and rich gravy assisted in moistening the beef. In fact it was probably the best part of the dish. The mashed potatoes were cooked exactly to our liking, with just a hint of skin and enough subtle lumps to give it texture, and the onion ring topped it off with a nice mellow crunch.

The bread, on the other hand, was soggy. Not surprising, since it looked like a slice of Wonder bread -- which barely holds up to peanut butter and jelly, much less a giant hunk of meat and potatoes. Still, we ate the whole dish, leaving nothing but a few scraps of disintegrating bread and one onion ring behind.

In the Other Corner: Rosie McCaffrey's Irish Pub
906 E. Camelback Rd. in Phoenix

It's a pity we'd never made it to Rosie's before now. Inside, the place is D-A-R-K. We're talking old-fashioned gaslight lamp dark, where you have to take a minute to let your pupils adjust after walking in from the daylight. We'd complain about how difficult it was to see our notes or read a book, but frankly after being in hella-sunny Phoenix for a decade we were happy for the respite. Once our eyes adjusted, we took in the bar's quirky surroundings.

Rosie's 2-story building looks huge from the outside, but the bar somehow manages to feel like a tiny cafe in the Irish countryside, with squeezed-in rows of booths and a center bar that takes up much of the floor space. There are cool stained glass windows, and weathered Irish ephemera on the tall walls above the dark wooden furniture.

Our Kell's Meatloaf Sandwich was a pile of ground spiced beef tucked between two slices of toasted bread and accompanied by one Celtic side dish (we chose mashed potatoes for the best comparison to Regions). Let's get the bad over with first: The mashed potatoes were creamy to the point of tasting like instant potatoes and so heavily spiced that we felt like we were eating a handful of black peppercorns with every bite. The brown gravy, served in a mini-ramekin cup, was bland and tasteless. 

Luckily, we didn't need any gravy. The meatloaf was so moist that tasty juice dripped from each bite, giving the already savory buttered and toasted bread extra flavor. The addition of corned beef, veggies and bacon to "Mum's secret recipe" added a savory zest. The loaf was topped with a thin layer of catsup, reminding us of our mom's recipe and thereby upping the comfort factor.

"I don't care for the catsup," one condiment-phobic friend said after snagging a bite of our leftovers. "It's right on the table, so if I wanted it I'd use it." He got a snarky laugh out of that one.

Mashed potatoes and gravy aside, every aspect of the sandwich was pleasing. Thin sourdough bread was improved by slathering it with butter and toasting until golden brown and crisp. A layer of cheese gave the sammy some delicious "glue" to hold it together, and the flavorful meat was so moist and juicy that it barely held together in loaf form. We could easily eat one of these every time we're sick. Or well.

The Verdict: Rosie McCaffrey's       

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