Say what you will about bread pudding (a lead-heavy gut bomb of an overplayed dessert), it's still crazy-popular for one very good reason: nobody gets tired of warm, sugary, bread-based goo. It's been around in one form or another for over 500 years, created in most cultures as a thrifty way to salvage old bread. Here in the States, it had a small revival in the 80's, thanks to Cajun cooking, then caught on in a big way in the 90's, becoming a tabula rasa for creative dessert chefs who added fruit, nuts, chocolate chips and anything else that struck their fancy.
When Chow Bella ran a 2011 story about favorite bread puddings in Metro Phoenix, some readers had a hissy fit that Fuego Bistro's horchata bread pudding had not been included. Now that tempers have cooled, the time seems right for an epic battle of the bread pudding -- Fuego Bistro versus Cornish Pasty Co.
In this corner: Fuego Bistro
The Setup: Hidden away in a commercial building that's also home to a dance studio, tiny Latin American Fuego is big on charm. In good weather, everyone's out in the courtyard, sipping sangria and mojitos, chowing on signature empanadas, seafood chile relleno, pernil asado and white prawns with grilled pineapple-ginger-habanero chutney. And it goes without saying, people love the horchata bread pudding.
The Good: Well, let's see. The chocolate malted ice cream has a nice, crunchy quality and what's not to like about whipped cream? Or candied walnuts for that matter?
The Bad: You have got to be kidding me. What the hell is so great about this thing? It's a sickeningly sweet, overwrought ice cream sundae, complete with toasted coconut-topped whipped cream, thick chocolate sauce, thicker caramel sauce and two slabs of gummy bread pudding, topped with candied walnuts and chocolate chips. It's a sugar bomb and an unattractive one at that. The plating, you'll note, looks like something out of a Southwestern cookbook from the 80's. I really, really don't get it. There's so much going on here that nothing stands out -- just a muddle of sugar.
The Price: $5 at happy hour, $7 lunch
In the other corner: Cornish Pasty Co., Tempe location
The Setup: Owner Dean Thomas, a culinary school grad and native of Cornwall, grew up on Cornish Pasties -- the savory, hand-held turnovers eaten by the tin miners of the region. But at his two Cornish pasty outlets in the Southeast Valley (one in Tempe, the other in Mesa), he goes well beyond the dietary scope of his ancestors, stuffing his pasties with anything and everything, including bangers and mash, turkey and dressing, carne adovada and lamb vindaloo. But as good as they are (and the pastry is first-rate), his house-made soups and desserts are my favorite things on the menu.
The Good: The dish is called Chocolate Bread and Butter Pudding, which is enough right there to make my mouth water. It begins with homemade bread, which is baked in a chocolate brandy sauce until the coarse sugar-sprinkled top gets a bit crunchy. The inside is warm and oozy, the texture of the pudding more like an ultra-soft cake or brownie. You can eat it with ice cream, but don't be a putz. Have it with creme Anglaise (the sweet, elegant custard named for the English), served in a tiny silver pitcher. That's the Brit way. This is everything bread pudding should be -- warm, comforting and delicious. Not too sweet, not too heavy and not too gummy.
The Bad: I should add, I've eaten this bread pudding on two or three occasions at the Mesa store, and it's always been stellar. This version at the Tempe location has a firmer crust and a more cake-like texture. It's not quite as good as the Mesa version.
The Price: $6.
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The Verdict: If you've made it this far, it's pretty clear who the winner is: Cornish Pasty by a country mile.