When you're seeking new restaurants to check out, the last place you'd think to look is inside a sleepy "terminal" at the Scottsdale Airport.
But, then, you haven't had Zulu Caffé's incredible housemade chips.
Sliced thin enough to border on translucent, a small nest of them sits in a wide-rimmed white bowl, the skin on their irregular edges the darkest in a palette of golden browns. They are warm, perfectly seasoned with salt and pepper, and delicately crisp — although not so much so that they are unable to support a few melted drops of blue cheese, crunchy pieces of bacon, and scallions so fresh you can smell them as soon as the dish is placed at the table.
The chips not only are exceptional, they are unlike anything you would expect to find at the restaurant of a municipal airport. But that's not the most surprising thing about them. The most surprising thing about them is who put them — and the rest of the food at Zulu Caffé — there.
If the name of chef Brian Ford doesn't ring a bell, chances are the award-winning restaurant Quiessence at the Farm at South Mountain does. After graduating from the French Culinary Institute in New York, Ford spent 10 years as executive chef at Quiessence before opening his own restaurant, Madelyn's, in Anthem. After just two years, the economy forced Ford to shutter Madelyn's in 2009, when he moved to Denver to work as an executive chef. When that didn't work out, he returned to the Valley in 2011, where he consulted on the menu for Palette, the restaurant at the Phoenix Art Museum, and, after answering an online ad, found himself heading up Zulu Caffé.
Developed by DeeDee Mazaand and Vicki Beaudoin, owners of Ciao Baby Catering, Zulu Caffé, named for the last letter of the pilot's alphabet, moved into a long-vacant space inside Scottsdale Airport. Giving Ford the freedom to do as he pleased, the chef drew upon his passion for simple, high-quality casual fare with a focus on seasonal and local ingredients to create modest, single-page lunch and brunch menus, as well as the restaurant's beer and wine list. (Ford also brought in a few favorites from his Anthem restaurant, like the warm salt and pepper chips and local Angus burger.) The results are dishes that are familiar yet incredibly flavorful, perfectly portioned, and priced (with the exception of one item) under $10. It's a business plan that bodes well for Zulu's primary customer base of employees of Scottsdale Airpark businesses and neighborhood locals.
Jokingly, it could be said that Ford's cuisine at Zulu Caffé could be the best airport food in the Valley, but once the word gets out about this Scottsdale secret, with its noteworthy chef behind nearly every dish, it's seriously set to rival — and probably top — the higher-profile restaurant additions to Sky Harbor's Terminal 4.
Those stopping by Zulu for lunch on a weekday can keep things light with a mugful of Ford's homemade seasonal soup, a fresh strawberry salad lightly dressed in a sherry vinaigrette, or a wonderful achiote chopped chicken salad with tender, seasoned pieces of meat tossed with black beans, lettuce, bright tomatoes, bacon, and bits of cotija cheese in a mildly spicy chipotle ranch topped with an elegant nest of long and thin crispy tortilla chips.
Sandwiches include a small selection of familiar favorites paired with sides such as very good homemade potato or sweet potato fries or a small salad. There is a satisfying BLT with cheddar cheese and a slathering of basil mayo on sturdy, toasted nine-grain bread; a Southwest grilled chicken wrap, featuring a light whole-wheat tortilla packed with flavorful blackened chicken, hunks of fresh avocado and tomato, black bean hummus, and chipotle aioli; and a stellar Cuban panini, Ford's version of the classic Cuban sandwich. House-pickled red onions go especially well with the sandwich's slow-cooked pulled pork, creamy melted provolone, and a just-enough touch of signature basil salsa verde between thin slices of crunchy bread to make it unique.
Those pickled red onions also appear on the Angus burger, topped with cheddar, bacon, and chipotle aioli. The patty was nicely seasoned and well prepared, but at $11, the burger was the most expensive item on the menu yet arguably the least exciting thing on it.
Three-cheese mac and cheese, made with fontina, aged cheddar, and Parmesan, is luscious and surprisingly light. Topped with bacon, scallions, and breadcrumbs for a pleasing crunch, it's sized just right as an appetizer (if you can allow yourself to share) or small entree.
After lunch, Ford shows he's just as good a baker as he is a cook with a homemade dessert of the day, which on my visits was a warm strawberry crisp that arrived in a petite scalloped cup topped with a small scoop of vanilla bean ice cream.
On the weekends, Zulu offers a few of its weekday lunch dishes along with a few sweet and savory breakfast items that follow Ford's style of simple, expertly prepared meals made with stellar ingredients.
If you've got a sweet tooth, the Bananas Foster Brioche French Toast should do the trick. The thick slices of soft bread are served in a generous pool of maple syrup and a dusting of powdered sugar. Each sugary forkful can be enhanced with a bite of banana, cooked in a cinnamon rum glaze, and a few crunchy pecans.
On the savory side, there's a flavorful frittata-like creation called the Tortilla Español, featuring griddled slices of scrambled eggs topped with caramelized onions, scallions, and Manchego cheese alongside a smoky and stellar rustic Romesco sauce.
And if, like me, you've grown weary of the football-size omelets served at so many breakfast spots, you'll find that Ford's are pleasantly petite. My spring vegetable omelet, stuffed with asparagus, leeks, mushrooms, spinach, and goat cheese, was as tasteful as it was tasty, served with fantastic home fries with bits of red pepper.
Zulu Caffé's interior of stone — for its floor, walls, and tables — along with blue and cream accents, seems to mimic its view of the airport's landing strips, which you can watch through a wall of windows. And the flood of natural light and blue-sky views of airplanes in action give the restaurant a welcoming and unique side that few others can offer.
After a string of higher-profile ventures, Ford appears comfortable at Zulu, with its oddball location, shortened hours, young staff (you may overhear Ford giving a line cook or inexperienced server a few pointers, like that yelling "fire" to a chef won't panic diners), and a clientele seemingly blissfully unaware of the pedigree of the man cooking their food.
The rest of us should be grateful to see him back in town.