On a clear night you can press your face against the cold airplane window at 35,000 feet, look into the distance, and, if you know what you're looking for, spot airports as far as your eyes can see.
Look for alternating bursts of green and white light, beacons at every airport used to assist pilots in their navigation. It's easy to find them at night, each airport a nexus in an ecosystem that serves big cities and small towns. There are more than 300 airports in Arizona, ranging from multi-runway monstrosities like Sky Harbor to tiny dirt strips like the one in Superior. And at many of those tiny airports are restaurants serving locals and pilots alike.
Airport restaurants, like small airports, are something of a dying breed.
But you'd never know they're dying when you step into the Deer Valley Airport Restaurant, owned and operated by the Papamatheakis family for more than 20 years. It's a full house at lunch. The room hums with aviation talk from crisply uniformed flight school students and tall tales from old pilots meeting with their buddies.
But it's not just aviation folk. The Deer Valley Airport pulls from all of North Phoenix and is a meeting place for local clubs and organizations, families, and airport employees. It's a decidedly working-class crowd eating hearty food like fish and chips, pork chops, and lasagna. The only glitz, other than the shiny $40 million Gulfstream jets sitting on the tarmac, is the pie case: a rotating mirrored carousel full of homemade pie. The contrast with Sky Harbor is stark: There's no Barrio Café, La Grande Orange, or Nocawich. And that's just fine. Much of the food here is really good, and the prices are great.
Like the pies, much of the food at the Deer Valley Airport is homemade and heavy. The onion rings might come frozen from a bag, but you won't really care if they accompany your Sloppy Joe, a heaping portion heavy on the onions and a mildly sweet sauce. At only $7.99, it's a bargain. Same with the chicken enchilada, which, like many of the Mexican-inspired dishes I tried, was some of the best food on the menu. Take a seat at the expansive counter and you'll have a perfect view of what's coming out of the kitchen: patty melts, chicken fried steak, and a nearly flawless rendition of corned beef and cabbage, salty, fatty, and spilling over the side of the platter.
The deep fryer works overtime here. Buffalo wings are crispy and meaty, heavy on the Frank's RedHot sauce. To me, fish and chips are legit only when served in newspaper at an English pub, but these fresh cod fillets make up in flavor and texture what they lack in authenticity. In contrast, fried jumbo shrimp were overcooked and soggy.
Ask your server for a recommendation and she'll probably offer up one of two things: pork chops or liver and onions. I'm not big on liver unless it's chopped, but I gladly ordered the pork chops. Served bone-in with a pile of sautéed mushrooms on top, it's the most popular item on the menu for good reason. I gnawed on the bone until it looked as if it had been dipped in acid; the smoky green beans served on the side never even stood a chance.
I couldn't resist ordering the gyro plate, the sole culinary nod to the ownership's Greek heritage. Be glad that I did so you won't. It was a flavorless textural debacle in dire need of onions and tzatziki. Oddly, you're much better off with the chimichanga. The kitchen staff hails from Mexico, not Greece, and it shows.
Things start to get strange when you approach the salad bar, set aside in the front corner of the restaurant. It's standard fare: iceberg lettuce and rudimentary toppings like store-bought croutons and bacon bits that likely never associated with anything porcine. French dressing, sweet as candy, seemed to be in high demand. But there is also an all-you-can-eat buffet featuring beef ribs, fish, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. If you're looking for quantity, you're in luck. But you're far better off ordering from the menu.
The Deer Valley Airport Restaurant is challenging to classify; is it an airport restaurant or just a restaurant that happens to be at an airport? The easiest answer is "yes."
With model airplanes hanging from the ceiling, large windows facing the two very active runways, and schmaltzy aviation references throughout the menu, it's definitely an airport restaurant. But it's really a diner, similar to those found throughout the eastern United States, where you can order anything from a full breakfast until 3 p.m. to a chicken fried steak, heavy on the white gravy, which will satisfy all but the most die-hard aficionados. In fact, with a menu dense with moderately priced familiar comfort food, one could imagine the Deer Valley Airport Restaurant as an ironic late-night hangout for the hipster crowd. That is, if it was open late and close to downtown.
General aviation is on the decline. It's an expensive endeavor. I know; I'm a licensed pilot and have flown to many small airports in Arizona. And though I love the sound of airplanes and the smell of jet fuel, most communities don't want airports in their backyards. And as more small airports close, so will the restaurants that serve them. And with those restaurants go the stories, the legends, and the tall tales from the pilots that flew there.