Budget Beat

Budget Beat: Lil' Cal's

Some of the restaurants I write about in Budget Beat are old faves, some are recommendations from readers or friends, some are just sitting there on the side of the road, begging to be tried. One of the fun things about doing this weekly blog is being surprised by a restaurant, especially when it's in a part of town I don't usually visit.

Such is the case with Lil' Cal's, an unusual new restaurant/bar on 32nd Street and Cactus Road in north Phoenix. A cool cat named Adam suggested I hit this place up. I'm pleased to report that Adam knows of what he speaks, because Lil' Cal's is a nice find.

Lil' Cal's resides in the building that used to a relatively short-lived establishment called The Celtic Curtain (an Irish bar for Pittsburgh Steelers fans -- what a concept!) that I always wanted to visit but never did. Lil Cal's is nearly as unique -- it's a little bit biker bar, a little bit hard rock bar, and features a menu that is incongruous with either scenes -- and I hope it lasts longer than The Celtic Curtain.

Though Lil' Cal's is a bar (there's even a pool table), it avoids serving run-of-the-mill bar food. Sure, there are items such wings, nachos, and hamburgers, but the menu also serves dishes such as duck breast, elk medallions, wild boar, London broil, rack of lamb, bass, and salmon. Like I said, not exactly your garden variety pub grub. The menu also boasts that its food is "made fresh . . . not frozen." And our server told the missus and me that the peeps in the kitchen are current students at or recent grads of Scottsdale Culinary Institute. Certainly, the dishes we ordered on a recent Saturday had a made-with-care quality that you'd expect from an ambitious young chef. 

We were there for lunch but we became intrigued by the all-day breakfast menu because of the prices. The breakfast special on this particular day was a bacon/green chile/pepper jack omelet for $6. Well, how could I turn that down? The omelet was darn-near perfect: The eggs were light and fluffy, the green chiles were fresh and cooked just right, the bacon and cheese filled out the whole thing nicely, and it was served piping hot in a neatly presented package. Really, I couldn't ask for much more in an omelet. It was one of the best I've had in quite a while.

She ordered the French toast with strawberries and whipped cream, which consisted of three thick slices of Texas toast marinated in a delicious, cinnamon-y French toast batter. The strawberries were fresh and juicy, and the thick whipped cream tasted homemade. With just a little bit of maple syrup, this was a sweet breakfast treat. And it was just $6.25.

I look forward to going back to Lil' Cal's to try the breakfast burrito and, for lunch, the pulled-pork sandwich, which our server raved about. L.C. also does "dinner and a show" on Wednesday nights, which includes a $35 dinner for two people and a live jazz or folk trio or a movie that shows on a big projection screen at the far end of the restaurant. The entertainment varies every week, so give 'em a call before you head over.

After the dinner crowd files out, the vibe at Lil' Cal's turns full-on bar with, you know, people drinking and stuff, our server told us. She said they've been doing good business slinging drinks on Friday and Saturday nights, and hope to get the food-service side of their operation ramped up. I recommend you check it out...

If you know of other unusual places like Lil' Cal's, I'd love to hear about them. Drop me a line at j[email protected]

Lil' Cal's
3128 East Cactus Road
Opens at 11 a.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. on weekends.

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Jay Bennett
Contact: Jay Bennett