Cafe Reviews

Chillin' With Homey

The days are getting shorter, nighttime temperatures have "cooled down" into the 60s, and I've been hungry for cozy comfort food like mashed potatoes and pot roast.

It's crazy, isn't it?

I'll bet that you, too, have felt a chill in the air one of these recent October evenings and, perhaps, grabbed a jacket before heading out after sundown. (Not to say you actually wore it.) Or maybe you've made the switch from iced coffee to hot pumpkin lattes. Or you've started wearing your flip-flops with pants now instead of shorts.

Such is the psychology of fall in Phoenix, when it's still summery by just about anyone else's standards, but thin-blooded desert dwellers are dutifully gearing up for the season as if it's ever really gonna get cold here. I guess that's what happens after six straight months of sweating.

It's no coincidence that on the same day I bought a big Halloween pumpkin and spent the afternoon flipping through Thanksgiving recipes in Gourmet, I got an urge to visit Phoenix City Grille. Good thing I did, because the restaurant's upscale Southwestern spin on meat and potatoes totally hit the spot.

This neighborhood place has been around for years, and although it looks quiet and unassuming from the street (just south of Bethany Home, in a 16th Street strip mall), inside, it's as bustling as anything you'd find along Camelback.

Who's eating here? Bunches of middle-aged office workers, plenty of well-heeled retirees, and a handful of Gen X-ers. In the evening, dim lighting, dark wood furniture, and a terracotta and deep blue color scheme give it a moody, clubby feel, and the business casual vibe gives way to a date-friendly ambiance. Framed photos of desert landscapes add a soothing touch.

Besides carnitas, and a shrimp and spinach quesadilla, there's little else on the menu that evokes Mexican cuisine. Instead, the homey dishes stay firmly in American territory, often putting regional ingredients like chiles and pinto beans to good use, but sometimes steering clear of the border altogether, as in the case of the straightforward crab cakes, served with thick tartar sauce and a small salad, or the grown-up mac 'n' cheese, with penne, asparagus, and ham in a five-cheese sauce.

Bacon-wrapped shrimp was the least successful starter, since the bacon was cooked to the point of distracting crunchiness. I couldn't taste the cotija cheese filling, either. On the other hand, the skillet of cornbread was simple and satisfying, almost like cake, with sweet kernels of corn inside and a crisp, crusty top.

Phoenix City Grille's griddled corn cakes were so tasty I wanted them all for myself. Tucked inside two thin, moist rounds were chunks of grilled chicken, a bit of melted jack cheese, and sour cream. The dish had a faint sweetness that complemented a side of top-notch black beans drizzled with crema.

At lunch one day, I sampled some decent sandwiches, served with crisp shoestring fries. The cheese steak, in particular, was awesome. Great roll, nice slick of garlic mayo inside the bun, tender shavings of rib eye, a few grilled onions and peppers, and a thick layer of melted provolone on top. As a kid, I ate cheese steaks at least once a week, and thanks to Phoenix City Grille, I could see myself getting into the habit again.

In the way of entrees, I was impressed with the bold flavors of the juicy pork tenderloin, which was grilled, sliced, and topped with ruby red jalapeño preserves — it was hot, smoky, and candy-sweet all at once. A tangy sauté of fingerling potatoes, strips of roasted pepper, zucchini, and roasted corn accompanied it. A special of seared New Zealand sea bass, served on top of griddled hominy cakes with black beans, corn, grape tomatoes, and red onion, also had a touch of smoke and heat, thanks to ancho chile sauce.

For simple, pan-roasted poultry with mashed potatoes, the Rose Lane chicken was noteworthy. The moist meat was infused with just the right amount of tarragon, and the buttery, chunky red bliss potatoes were the perfect vehicle for scooping up the pan jus. However, the P.C.G. Pasta was a little too simple — and too salty. It was a plate of penne, chicken chunks, broccoli, and sun-dried tomatoes in garlic-Chardonnay cream sauce. A default dish if ever there was one.

But about that pot roast.


That was the word that came out of everyone's mouth at my table. And, boy, did we envy the lucky guy who ordered it.

Heaped on top of mashed potatoes, the beef was melt-in-your-mouth tender (no knife necessary), smothered in savory gravy made with caramelized onions and bourbon. I feel guilty for even saying this, but the next time I miss Sunday dinners at Grandma's house, I know where I'm heading.

If you've ever been to Sierra Bonita Grille, the sister restaurant to Phoenix City Grille, then the desserts here will be quite familiar — actually, they're nearly identical. Nothing wrong with that, though. Even though we could hardly finish our rich entrees, my dining companions and I happily cleaned our plates at the end of the meal.

I liked the flaky crust and pudding-like texture of the buttermilk pie, not to mention the pool of caramel sauce surrounding it. The warm chocolate torte, served with extra-creamy vanilla bean gelato, had the fudgy intensity of a brownie, with a fluffier crumb. And Jack Daniel's whiskey lime sauce was a great foil for the buttery, vanilla-scented croissant bread pudding.

Light, summery fare this ain't. And, boy, what a relief.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig