Some people changed careers during the pandemic, while others fought health battles. James and Yolanda Brown of Ahwatukee did both before opening their first restaurant, Chesapeake Bay Bistro, last June. The eatery is an inviting, approachable seafood stop with Old Bay tins on the counter, fresh seafood flown in daily, and creative specials.
Yolanda takes orders at the counter, and James does all the cooking.
"My grandmother was a restaurant owner and a cook," James says. "So I was on her hip; she taught me how to cook. Then my mother was a professional, trained cook; she also taught me how to cook. Ever since I was a young kid, I grew up around restaurants in the restaurant industry."
For years, James had only shared these traditions with family and friends. But in 2018, he received a cancer diagnosis and underwent treatment. He had worked in the corporate world for decades, and began thinking about making changes in his life. The pandemic was the catalyst for him to indulge his passion.
James and Yolanda Brown are grateful for the community that's made their pandemic dreams a reality.
It says something about determination when someone decides to open their first restaurant (not an easy feat under the best of conditions). But it says even more when that person quits his career to open a seafood restaurant in a landlocked place like the Valley of the Sun. There isn't a fishery for hundreds of miles, but James knew he could do it.
"My wife thought I was crazy at first," says James. "'Okay, wait a minute, is it the medication?' she asked me, and I'm like, I'm telling you, we lived in California the last 30 years...eating grilled fish, mahi-mahi tuna, shrimp — all of those fish. Then, when I would go back east to Virginia, to Norfolk, to the Chesapeake Bay area, you know, we would eat the fried fish, the catfish, the oysters. I always had this concept to combine both into one, and here it is."
The result is a little bistro off Interstate 10
in Ahwatukee that serves all kinds of fresh fish daily, almost any way you want it. You can get it blackened, dusted in Old Bay, or lightly breaded, among other preparations.
At first glance, the menu can be intimidating, but Yolanda is the reassuring voice on the other side of the counter. She walks customers through the myriad options. First, there are appetizers to choose from and specials that change daily. If you're craving something East Coast, the crab cakes ($15) are a must. The appetizer comes with two four-ounce crab patties deep-fried to a golden brown, seasoned with Old Bay, and perfectly portioned, with the proper ratio of lump crabmeat to cake.
The crab cakes are made with a generous portion of crab and fried to perfection. They're also available as a sandwich.
Next are the entrees. Pick your fish, and decide whether you'd like it grilled or fried. Fried seafood is lightly breaded with a cornmeal recipe that was passed down to James, and grilled items come with no fewer than six marinade options (garlic butter is a personal favorite).
Meals are served one of several ways: as a sandwich on a bolillo roll ($13.50-$18.50); plated with two sides ($17.50-$24.95); with a salad ($14.95- $18.50); with a taco ($4.50-$5.50 per taco) or à la carte ($10-$18). According to the Browns, tacos are a popular choice, followed by the plate, which comes with the opportunity to try some next-level coleslaw, Old Bay chips, or hush puppies.
James doesn't prep much, in order to ensure that everything is made to order; that commitment extends to the hush puppies and chips, which are made fresh.
The menu rotates constantly based on what's available on a given day. James uses certain distributors, but also talks directly to fisherman on both coasts; he can get calls as late as 10 p.m. from fishermen who just finished their catch. If he purchases the catch, he'll pick it up at Sky Harbor the next morning.
A taco made with ahi tuna from San Diego, nicely seared by James.
"We get the catfish out of Mississippi, the oysters come from a vendor in Washington state, and soft-shell crabs come from back east," he explains. "We work with a variety of different vendors that will work with us. We're a small mom-and-pop, so we can't order a massive amount, and the variety of sources allows us to maintain the freshest or best-quality seafood that we can get here."
The food stands on its own, but the community around the restaurant has cemented the couple's place in Ahwatukee. "Now they see that this is just a relaxing mom-and-pop," Yolanda says. "We want [our customers] to relax and have a good time."
Chesapeake Bay Bistro recently got approved for a BYOB license, so customers can now enjoy their meal with a bottle of wine or their favorite brew.
The Browns hope to have a full-fledged wine and beer license in the future. In the meantime, grab your favorite bottle and prepare to indulge in some fresh seafood. One of the most exciting features of the menu is the Maryland Blue Crab ($8-$10), which is just coming into season. James says he's waiting until the crabs get a little larger — eight or nine inches — and expects to have them in the next few weeks.
Chesapeake Bay also takes orders online or over the phone for pickup and offers catering.
Chesapeake Bay Bistro
5033 East Elliot Road
Open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and for dinner from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 5 to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.