The griddled corn cakes at this uptown Phoenix restaurant are a house specialty.
The griddled corn cakes at this uptown Phoenix restaurant are a house specialty.
Patricia Escarcega

Uptown Phoenix's Not-So-Secret Neighborhood Gem

Welcome to the 2018 edition of The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. From now until May, we'll be sharing 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix.

27: Griddled Corn Cakes and Ramona Farms Super Food Salad at Phoenix City Grille

At first glance, weekday lunch service at Phoenix City Grille seems like a pretty tame affair. It might start with just you and a few stragglers gathered at the bar, watching TV, and admiring the bottles of premium tequila and single-malt Scotch whiskeys lined neatly on the mirrored bar shelves.

Before long, though, the dining room is swelling with regulars: the shirtsleeve office-worker crowd that descends here around noon every day, the book club that meets here once a month, the friendly retirees in polo shirts and white sneakers hanging out on the patio.

There are plenty of newer and trendier lunch spots in uptown Phoenix, but few capture the neighborhood tavern vibe as well as Phoenix City Grille. Longtime owner and Valley restaurateur Sheldon Knapp opened the restaurant in the Bethany East Shopping Center back in 1997. Since then, it has evolved into the kind of place that so many newer restaurants aspire to be: a comfortable and familiar neighborhood staple with a large cast of loyal regulars.

Phoenix City Grille is a popular and long-standing neighborhood tavern in uptown Phoenix's Madison neighborhood.
Phoenix City Grille is a popular and long-standing neighborhood tavern in uptown Phoenix's Madison neighborhood.
Patricia Escarcega

People come for the upscale yet dim, laid-back, Western-tinged ambiance — the walls are replete with striking, oversize photographs of Arizona scenery and ranch life. And, of course, there's the food.

The menu at Phoenix City Grille is pleasantly eccentric and wide-ranging. You'll find contemporary American restaurant standards like gourmet burgers and steak, along with Southwestern stalwarts like carne asada tacos and green chile pork.

The thing to try at least once are the Original Griddled Corn Cakes. It's a dish that seems to gather up every Southwestern culinary cliche — corn, cheese, salsa fresca — but which manages to register as new and compelling. The highlight of the dish are the corn cakes themselves: sturdy, gently crispy, with a lovely balance of sweet-savory flavor. They're stuffed with grilled chicken and stretchy white cheese, and served with some of the restaurant's wonderfully spicy, garlicky black beans.

In recent years, Knapp and his culinary team have worked closely with local farmers to bring more native and heirloom Arizona ingredients into the mix. The dish that best captures these flavors is the Ramona Farms Super Food Salad, a dish born out of a partnership with the Sacaton-based family farm. The dish is an earthy, chewy medley of tepary beans, Sonoran wheat berries, chickpeas, roasted squash, and arugula. A scattering of dried cranberries adds pops of sweetness, and the salad is dressed lightly in a chiltepin-Dijon vinaigrette and topped with soft crumbles of panela cheese.

The Ramona Farms Super Food Salad is subtly delicious, the kind of virtuous dish that Phoenix City Grille has done well, and with little fanfare, for more than 20 years. When you have a devoted neighborhood following, though, maybe that's all the fanfare you really need.

Phoenix City Grille. 5816 North Sixteenth Street, 602-266-3001.
Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Monday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The Essentials so far:
50: Soul food platter at Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles
49: The Bear at Short Leash Hot Dogs + Rollover Doughnuts
48: Grilled squid and other specialties at Andreoli Italian Grocer
47: I-10 Nachos at Cocina 10
46: Coffee made from ROC2 beans
45: The Haturo Sub Sandwich at Cheese 'n Stuff
44: Zookz at Zookz
43: Jade Red Chicken at Chino Bandido
42: Tasting menu at Quiessence at The Farm
41: Single-origin Papua New Guinea Bar at Zak's Chocolate
40: Green chile at Casa Reynoso
39: Brûlée burger from Paradise Valley Burger Company
38: Hand-pulled noodles from China Magic Noodle House
37: Carne adovada sliders at Dick's Hideaway
36: Crispy Pig Ear and Amaro cocktails from Crudo
35: Chile-laced specialties from Cafe Ga Hyang
34: Martinis at AZ88
33: Nooner at Duck & Decanter
32: Eggs Maximilian at Harlow's Cafe
31: Beef Tacos from Asadero Norte De Sonora
30: Orange Blossom from Huss Brewing Company
29: Rye bread from Yasha From Russia
28: Scotch Beef and Mashed Potatoes from Tarbell's
27: Griddled Corn Cakes & Ramona Farms Super Food Salad at Phoenix City Grille

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