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Eating Gilbert Great: Three Joe Johnston Mainstays Continue to Deliver the Goods

Hip, modern dining, the kind that "has a vibe" and combines upscale comfort food and gourmet sensibilities, has come to Gilbert. Not recently, mind you: Joe Johnston, best known for his prescient, pre-cafe-nation Coffee Plantation chain, and wife Cindy have been slowly redefining dining for the past 20 years. Their trio of restaurants amounts to an East Valley version of Phoenix's LGO monolith.

The Johnstons rely on local farmers and suppliers to create craft cuisine at Joe's Farm Grill, situated on the outskirts of town on a farmland turned residential development called Agritopia, and at Joe's Real BBQ, a casual barbecue joint located catty-corner from their more upscale Liberty Market on Gilbert Road, where they joined forces in late 2008 with chef David Traina (Delux, Café Terra Cotta) and wife Kiersten to create a chic version of their popular über-diner.

Named for the family-owned grocery store originally housed there, Liberty Market was designed in 2008 (and overhauled five years later) by architect John Chonka, who kept elements of the 1935 building, including original brick walls, wood roof trusses, a roofline display of shopping carts, and the original 1959 neon sign. Unlike their smaller restaurants, Liberty offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus and a separate coffee counter, the Strada Espresso Bar. A colossal wood-burning oven bakes Traina's thin-crust pizza pies.

Appetizers are both familiar (a hummus plate, a roasted Brie platter) and more adventurous, like the shrimp and grits, which were superb. This Southern low-country staple was creamy with cheese and coarsely ground corn married to big, juicy shrimps so big they were more like prawns. The corn and avocado salsa served with the lump crab cake was almost better than the cake itself. Almost. The lemony aioli provided a second, more savory dipping option for the light, fishy cake.

The grilled chicken pasta was good for sharing. Creamy Parmesan sauce-coated penne dusted with smoked mozzarella and tossed with bits of bacon was hard to set aside in favor of a pair of uneven entrées. Apricot-glazed chicken turned a couple of basics into a superior dish. The fruity coating on the moist breast gave it a vaguely sweet-and-sour flavor that was complemented neatly by buttery mashed sweet potatoes. Flatiron steak with a Mr. Pibb marinade proved that it's possible to ruin a good piece of meat with soda pop; cooked to order and nicely pink, it also was cloyingly sweet. The garlic mash served alongside was sublime, starchy and perfectly salted. Stuffed, we barely dented a slice of Chocolate Death Ray, its layers of chocolate mousse and cocoa-rich cake covered in ganache and flecks of edible gold. It tasted as pretty as it looked.

Across the street, the Johnstons offer pecan-smoked barbecue at Joe's Real BBQ. A chopped salad starter was dreary. A pedestrian toss of hunks of romaine, black beans, corn, and tomato, this wasn't in fact a chopped salad. Dressed with barbecue ranch and topped with chicken (other chopped meats are also available), it also wasn't very tasty.

The two-meat plate offers a diner's choice of any two meats; we chose white-meat turkey, surprisingly moist and flavorful, and the sausage, which had a super-spicy kick and a nice, crispy skin. Both were perfectly prepared and tasty on their own and even better when dipped into Johnston's dark, savory barbecue sauce, served on the side. Smoky and sweet, this sauce had some peppery heat and a nice aftertaste. The same sauce also was served with the sampler platter, an extravagant tray-full of tender, smoky white-meat chicken; fall-off-your-fork-tender brisket; a tasty but slightly dry pile of pulled pork, and a short rack of pork ribs, nice and gristly with crispy edges, also slightly dry and prepared more like Chinese spare ribs.

Sides were expertly prepared. Mac and cheese came crumbled with what tasted like buttered breadcrumbs and was creamy and not over-cooked, which is so often the case in macaroni and cheese dishes. An order of baked beans was crammed with so much meat, it was more like a sweet-and-savory stew. Hunks of sausage and pulled pork join a trio of kidney, Lima, and pinto beans bound with a tangy tomato sauce with hints of maple. Cornbread was dense and moist and slightly sweet and, spackled with its accompanying honey butter, was more like a rich dessert. Coleslaw made with green and red cabbage was as disappointing as the salad had been; watery and somewhat limp, it was abandoned in favor of the creamy, buttery cheesy potatoes we'd ordered.

Meats and sides are available in any number of combinations. An exterior to-go window works best with phoned-ahead orders, as it's not shaded and there's nowhere to sit while you wait for your food.

As with the Liberty Market location, Chonka transformed Johnston's former family farmhouse into Joe's Farm Grill, where we dined one recent night immediately following a huge storm. A pair of young men who bustled about during our al fresco meal, wiping surfaces and offering plastic forks and paper napkins to diners, were the likely reason the cozy outside patio of this vaguely mid-century glass-and-brick building was so spotless and dry.

As with each of its restaurants, Joe's Farm Grill offers come-and-get-it counter service. While we waited for our food, which arrived all at once, mostly in plastic baskets and Styrofoam cups, we sipped a perfectly serviceable iced tea and a house special strawberry lemonade, slightly acidic and too quickly settled into an ugly sediment at the bottom. I forgot all about this after a single bite of the big, thick-crusted onion rings, crisp and sweet and piping hot.

The grilled wedge salad offered a full head of iceberg lettuce, cut in two, its outer leaves lightly seared, its center globbed with blue cheese dressing, chopped tomato, and bacon bits. The beet salad, dressed with a lightly citrusy vinaigrette, was overpowered by a crumble of blue cheese, clearly one of the Johnston's favorite ingredients.

There was no blue cheese on the Fontina burger, but I couldn't taste the Fontina, either. Cooked to order, its medium-rare patty was obliterated by too many flavors: roasted red pepper, grilled mushrooms, greens, and pecan pesto, all piled on a fluffy, cinnamon-y hamburger roll.

Jumbo fried shrimp were huge, big and juicy and not butterflied, coated in a crispy breading and served with tangy cocktail sauce. A twice-grilled cheese pizza offered a lightly charred crust not quite sturdy enough for the tart tomato sauce and mozzarella, fontina, and pecorino Romano cheeses melted on top.

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Halfway through our meal, we were joined by a stray cat who kept a polite distance while we sucked on a pretty decent vanilla bean malted and enjoyed the unseasonably cool evening air. We'd driven for the better part of an hour to get here, as we'd done when visiting the other two Johnston-owned Gilbert restaurants that week, and we realized that, the occasional middling Fontina burger aside, we now had three different reasons to return to Gilbert.

Liberty Market
230 North Gilbert Road, Gilbert
7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Joe's Real BBQ
301 North Gilbert Road, Gilbert
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

Joe's Farm Grill
3000 East Ray Road, Gilbert
8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

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