Cafe Reviews


Wolfie's, 5010 East Shea, Phoenix, 991-0707. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Remember the most memorable hamburger you ever had?
Lee Iacocca does. In his best-selling autobiography, he lovingly recalls an absolutely scrumptious burger in almost the same detail as he does the Ford Mustang.

He was lunching in the company's executive dining room with Henry Ford II, who ate almost nothing except hamburgers. Ford remarked that no one, not even his personal cook, could make a burger like Joe, the Swiss-Italian chef there. Curious about the chef's exceptional talents, Iacocca went back to the kitchen after lunch to find out the secret of the perfect burger.

The chef was happy to oblige. He went to the refrigerator and pulled out an expensive hunk of prime New York steak. He stuffed the meat through a grinder and formed it into a patty. Then he slapped it on the grill.

"Any questions?" Joe asked.
It's almost eerie to realize how much Henry Ford and I have in common. He made cars. I drive one every day. He liked the company of rich, glamorous women. So do I. And we both appreciate simple, well-made American fare.

So I set out to track down some old-fashioned U.S. favorites--soups, burgers, sandwiches, fries, desserts--that could satisfy an itch for quality without forcing you to skip the monthly payment on the Taurus.

First stop, Wolfie's. Although not related to restaurants of the same name in Miami and New York, it's got a similar air. Sink into plush, black-vinyl booths, gaze at celebrity photos and listen to piped-in Neil Diamond. Patrons into proofreading can also amuse themselves by counting the errors on the ten-page menu. We started off with a substantial cup of homemade split-pea soup, perked up with flavorful bits of bacon. It came as thick as lava, nearly as hot and just as filling. The soup might not be too appealing in July, but it went down real easy on a cold winter evening. Then we plunged into burgers. The plain, half-pound steak burger would have pleased even the fussy Henry Ford. It's outstanding, a juicy, beefy hunk of cholesterol and animal protein. Even cooked at the government-mandated temperature of 155 degrees, this is a burger to sink your canines into. There's lettuce, tomato and red onion on the side to gratify any latent herbivorous instincts.

Wolfie's also offers two alternative burgers that Joe wouldn't have admitted to the executive dining room. The chicken burger--it's ground-up chicken, with a strong, off-putting taste--has a lot in common with the Ford Pinto: You wouldn't want to run into either one. Sure, it's better for you than the steak burger. So what?

The turkey burger, having somewhat less taste, is correspondingly somewhat better. But it costs almost twice as much as the steak burger, and isn't even half as good. Even though it came with a pleasing bowl of homemade fruit salad--apple, pineapple and grapes--you don't need an M.B.A. to figure out that it's still not much of an investment.

If burgers aren't your style, you won't go wrong with the hot-beef sandwich. The meat's very lean, but not dry. It's also packed into a French roll that actually had a fresh-baked taste.

Wolfie's side dishes are a mixed lot. The half-sour pickles set out on the tables had the appropriate crunch. The mayo-drenched potato salad had a sweet and tangy touch. The coleslaw, though, seemed to have undergone a lengthy deflavorization process.

Most disappointing were the French fries. The burger plates arrived with tons of crosshatched spuds, but these sodden critters had clearly spent a great deal of time lounging in the kitchen before making an appearance on our plates. I'm certain Henry Ford, like me, preferred his fries hot and crisp.

We turned to a couple of all-American desserts and willingly paid the caloric price. The sour-cream apple pie was a delight, made with tart Granny Smiths.

The thick malted, rich with Ben & Jerry's ice cream, was so luscious that I successfully rationalized its consumption: I'm not too heavy for my height, I told myself, just too short for my weight. Wolfie's is hardly a burger-and-malt shop, but I'd come back for them. I think Lee and Hank would, too.

The Rare Bird, 7730 East McDowell, Scottsdale, 949-9705. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

I don't think I've ever encountered more cheery service than I received at the Rare Bird, a new Scottsdale bar-burger-sandwich joint. The effervescent waitress was grinning as if Ed McMahon had just shown up at her door with a large check, a subscription to Sports Illustrated and a free sneaker phone. I liked her attitude--who wants to be served by a sourpuss?

Obviously, though, she hadn't been sampling the Rare Bird's chicken potato soup, a foolproof cure for a case of the smiles. Despite being microwaved to the surface temperature of Venus, the soup featured unwholesome lumps of undercooked potatoes.

This place serves up some intriguing burgers that McDonald's will not be test-marketing anytime soon.

The winning burger here--a real standout--is the cowboy version. It's larger than the other burgers, a half-pound of glorious, moist beef, topped with cheese and slabs of poblano pepper. It's a three-napkin job.

The American cattle population shouldn't get too excited about the introduction of buffalo burgers, a Rare Bird specialty. With its potent, gamy flavor, buffalo meat is unlikely to have much of an impact on longhorn actuarial tables.

Wine burgers are another unusual burger offering. The menu promises beef marinated with Burgundy, but this is one case where abstinence makes the heart grow fonder. No problem with the meat or bread, a seeded kaiser roll miles better than any mushy bun. But what little touch of the grape the patty had was destroyed by the heapful of mayonnaise troweled on it. I bet even Annie Hall wouldn't put mayo on a wine burger.

I was really looking forward to sampling the ostrich burger, another Rare Bird oddity. But the waitress told me it's out of season. Just my luck to come here before the ostriches are ripe. The side orders that accompany burgers and sandwiches exceed bar and burger standards. Onion rings are great, crispy with a freshly battered, right-out-of-the-fryer taste. The French fries are the crinkly cut commercial variety, but they also come crunchy and sizzlingly hot. The oniony potato salad and coleslaw, I suspect, come from a big tub, but at least it's a tasty tub.

The homemade hot apple pie should warm up diners at least as much as the waitress's smile. It came in a chafing dish, with a crispy crumb topping enfolding sweet and gooey apples. And even though we didn't say anything, the waitress took it off the check because we waited a couple of extra minutes before she brought it out. The Rare Bird may not soar yet, but it does fly.

Between the Buns, 1334 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 990-2233. Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.

I was lured to Between the Buns by the name, which excited images of dozens of juicy burgers dripping with all sorts of artful and fragrant toppings.

So much for my imagination.
Between the Buns is Basic Neighborhood Bar, complete with trophies, television, dart board, hanging plants and pool table.

The place offers exactly one burger.
And it's unlikely the cook sent prime New York sirloin through a grinder to fashion it. The meat's just ordinary, and it's served naked on an equally ordinary bun. Some lettuce, tomato and onion on the side keep it company.

On the other hand, the weekend nibbling special--10 cents each for peel-your-own shrimp and hot wings--is a tasty bargain. The wings are crisply fried with a peppery punch, and the shrimp large enough to eat one at a time. A dozen of each and a draft brew will fill up most appetite cracks, and you'll get change back from a five.

The homemade potato soup was an unexpected revelation. It's great, with thick chunks of potato in a creamy, delicately seasoned broth. I guess the cook spends more time on soups than burgers.

Between the Buns delivers serviceable sandwiches, but nothing that would tempt Iacocca or anyone else to wander into the kitchen to ask how they do it. The French dip came slathered with cheese and peppers, but its dainty size won't slay any man-size appetites. The dry Cajun chicken breast was redeemed by its bread, grilled rye swathed with butter.

The curlicue fry is the tuber of choice here. We got heaps of them, but the fries weren't nearly crispy enough. The coleslaw was an equally generous serving, but stingy on taste. The pasta salad, though, is a gratifying side dish--tempting, oversize, tricolored rotini sprinkled with pepper and cheese.

Like the burger, there's only one dessert. It's a commercial-tasting brownie, the recipe for which must begin: "Take a five-pound sack of sugar. . . ."

If you're thinking of eating here, I suggest one basic rule: Stick to items that don't come between the buns.

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Howard Seftel