If you are passing through the doors of Bertha's Cafe for the very first time, you probably have come for Beth Goldwater's cheesecake.
A poorly kept secret among Valley dessert hounds — those who can tick off their favorite spots for bread pudding without so much as a pause for breath — it easily is one of the best in town. Crafted from a recipe Goldwater took a year to perfect, it is bulky in appearance, yet lighter and less dense than you might expect, and its dark brown, thin cookie crust serves as a buttery and crumbly base for a creamy sweet filling with a golden brown coat and a seriously airy layer of whipped cream.
Bertha's usually features a single cheesecake each day. Cut into hulky slices, it may be the excellent original or a classic dessert-inspired creation such as mocha-rich tiramisu, nutty baklava, or the popular fresh and fruity banana cream. Or it could be a seasonal selection like comfortably spiced pumpkin. Whatever the flavor, it's a safe bet the entire thing will be polished off before the afternoon closing time.
Behind the Scenes at Bertha's Cafe
When your friends find out you have a truck, they ask you to help them move. And when they find out you can bake the hell out of a cheesecake, your holidays get pretty crazy. Such was the case with Goldwater (who is married to the grandson of the late five-term Arizona senator and 1964 presidential nominee), who steadily supplied friends and family with her signature creation for years before opening her own bakery and cafe in 2005.
Named after the moniker her twin sister used to tease her with, Bertha's Cafe sat in a tiny spot on 40th Street just north of Thomas for four years before moving in August 2009 to its current home, tucked into a strip mall (really tucked in, as in the back corner) at Indian School and 32nd Street.
Goldwater could have kept her shop simple with a "just cheesecake" theme, but her knack for creating scratch-made treats of all kinds led her to add a collection of homey baked goods to the mix. And because she loves sandwiches, her counter-service breakfast and lunch eatery serves a tidy, satisfying selection of them along with several salads. Whether that makes Bertha's a dessert shop with an affordable savory side or a casual eatery with a sweet twist is more a question of semantics than of taste — and chances are you'll want to experience both here, and in no particular order.
The sandwiches are very good, straightforward, well-crafted pleasures of fresh ingredients, signature sauces, and house-roasted meats nestled between slices of artisan ciabatta, sourdough, or multi-grain courtesy of master baker MJ Coe of MJ Bread. There is an acceptable roast beef with blue cheese; a flavorful, six-slice stack of Italian dry salami with goat cheese, sundried tomatoes, pesto, and frilly greens; and an excellent roast turkey layered with avocado, tomatoes, pesto mayo, Havarti cheese, and bacon accented with a nice balsamic onion marmalade.
The best sandwich on the menu is the asparagus and Havarti panini. Between thick slices of chewy ciabatta bread with a delicately crispy crust, its oven-roasted asparagus is tender, but not mushy, and its companions of buttery Havarti, peppery arugula, roasted red peppers, and a zingy pesto mayo make it pretty much perfect. As a friend of mine correctly quipped, "There's a reason it's in a box on the menu."
You'll want to stop by for breakfast, too, when Bertha's sandwiches get packed with ingredients like eggs, avocado, and peppery sausage and usually are accompanied by a taste of fruity and crunchy homemade granola you'll wish you had ordered as its own side. There's a chunky breakfast wrap of baked eggs, caramelized onions, crisp bacon, and just the right amount of oozy cheddar cheese. There's also a lighter English muffin creation layered with eggs, arugula, and melted Havarti lit up by a slathering of pesto and sweet and juicy roasted tomatoes.
Like the sandwiches, the salads are a satisfying bunch — colorful, well-balanced gardens of textures and flavors made with ingredients like candied walnuts, smoked bacon, and crunchy slices of apple alongside one of five housemade dressings. You might find a salad of mixed greens topped with sweet and smoky roasted red peppers, sundried tomatoes, and pesto; a festive Thai chicken creation interspersed with peanuts, carrots, cucumbers, and bell peppers with a decidedly spicy peanut dressing; or a concoction of farm veggies served with two mini grilled cheese sandwiches perfect for pushing the greens onto the fork between tiny toasted and cheesy bites.
You can opt to have your salad solo, as a lunch special with half of your favorite sandwich, or with a cup of Bertha's homemade soup of the day — perhaps a comforting roasted tomato or well-seasoned chicken tortilla. The lunch specials include a bag of chips and a small but ridiculously amazing chocolate cookie, bulleted with white chocolate chips, that's less a sweet ending and more a kind of confectionary tease to Bertha's more weighty indulgences.
Not that you haven't noticed them already.
Devilishly placed before the ordering register inside a bronze-trimmed dessert case and under glass domes on top of it, you'll find Goldwater's cheesecake — as well as more than a dozen other kinds of temptations. There are giant blueberry muffins, thick chocolate brownies, decadent peanut butter cookies, fruity homemade "pop-tarts" (sometimes), and an ever-changing pie selection from one of the best pie makers in the Valley: Traci Wilbur of Pie Snob. Want that chunky, white-icing-slathered cinnamon roll warmed up before its trip to your table? You bet you do.
Is it the homespun desserts that make Bertha's feel so welcoming? Perhaps. But the feeling's also helped along with its casual yet stylish room: walls swathed in warm pastels, classic wooden tables and chairs, and a white wainscoted counter. Here, no one seems to feel rushed to finish their newspaper or boisterous game of mahjong, the friendly, easygoing staff rolls balls of batter for the day's cookies while chatting with customers or humming along to the contemporary music softly playing overhead, and little ones sprint to the dessert case, press their noses against the glass and point at, well, at everything, with an unbridled glee that reminds us of us.