Cafe Reviews

Good Gravy! Welcome Diner in Downtown Phoenix Serves Up Southern Charm

The Welcome Diner, the tiny, hip 200-square-foot eatery at 10th and Roosevelt streets in Phoenix, has returned. And this time, it's packing some serious Southern eats along with the burgers and fries.

Consider the heavenly buttermilk biscuit sandwiches, which are not so much sandwiches as they are near-toppling heaps of meat and bread oozing with cheese, dripping with sauce or gravy, and massive enough to give you pause as how to best consume them. A knife and fork is an option or, for the more daring, the hands, which will stretch and maneuver to control the biscuit-based beast before it inevitably explodes into a delicious mess you'll want to finish off with utensils anyway. In either case, finding the bottom of the paper plate (and going home full) is a given.

You could start and stop with the Southern-inspired fried chicken, a dynamic duo of crispy chunks of buttermilk-battered meat with a seasoning that would make the Colonel blush and moist, tinged-brown biscuits with a lusciously rich crumb. It can be layered with melted cheddar, strips of glistening bacon, apple butter, or spoonfuls of thick, white, peppery sausage gravy that lazily runs down the sides and pools onto the plate for extra, stick-to-your-ribs satisfaction.

For those who prefer a home where the Buffalo chicken roams, there's a biscuit sandwich featuring the fried fowl slathered in a boldly tangy and spicy orange sauce and layered with blue cheese, bacon, lettuce, and tomato. And The Carol, a tower of mouthwateringly tender pork shoulder braised in Kiltlifter and caramelized onions for hours then topped with smoky onion slaw and a slightly sweet Carolina mustard sauce with a barbecue-style tang, won't leave you wanting for much else.

The Welcome Diner is the new home of Michael Babcock and Jenn Robinson, who made the transition to the iconic, nine-seat diner in February after roaming the streets with their Southern-style food truck, Old Dixie's, for just a few months. (Babcock fell in love with Southern cuisine after a two-month-long road trip through the South.) Owned by developer Sloane McFarland, the diner originally opened in 2004, eventually morphing into a pop-up, retro-cool showcase for chefs like Payton Curry (Brat Haus), Eric Gitenstein (MF Tasty), and Matt Pool (Matt's Big Breakfast).

Now, thanks to Babcock and Robinson, Welcome Diner has become something of a Phoenix roadside stop by way of New Orleans, with a sourcing list that reads like a who's who of Arizona purveyors. Sure, there are burgers here — and good ones, too — but what you've come for is a taste of the South. And a small and ever-changing menu of Babcock's favorite homemade dishes makes sure you get it — in soul-soothing, comfort food fashion.

You'll want to start with Babcock's poutine, a mass of fries covered in cheddar cheese and the same thick, rich gravy that can be had on the fried chicken biscuit sandwich. It's poutine gone the way of a Southern country kitchen, and a hopelessly addictive one at that.

On the evenings that it is listed as a special, there is a very good fried Gulf shrimp po' boy. Packed with giant fried shrimp in a killer crunchy batter and covered in a delicately spicy remoulade sauce along with lettuce and tomatoes, this Louisiana favorite may be missing the traditional and bulkier baguette-style New Orleans French bread, but it's a satisfying sandwich all the same. And on the standard menu, a po' boy bulked out with fried avocado, kale, pico de gallo, and chipotle remoulade on French bread ensures vegans and vegetarians can enjoy a taste of the popular grinder, too.

The red beans and rice, Babcock's interpretation of another classic New Orleans favorite, is pretty much as good as it gets. Prepared in the Cajun tradition — with ham hocks, bell peppers, onions, and celery — then topped with slices of smoky and peppery Andouille sausage from Schreiner's, it's as deeply flavorful as it is filling.

If it weren't for the dominance of the buttermilk biscuit sandwiches, the burgers might be one of the top items on the menu. Starting with a top-notch, half-pound patty from Niman Ranch, they are well-prepared and can be layered with ingredients like thick-sliced bread and butter pickles, sharp cheddar, garlic aioli, bacon, and even peanut butter. You'll probably wish the buns were more substantial, but the flavors come together all the same. They can be had with (too many) fries or coleslaw, but replacing them with sides like buttery-sweet collard greens, red beans and rice, or a smoked spring onion slaw gives the meal a more flavorful and Southern-style slant.

And thanks to a liquor license, diners can wash down the Southern eats with a PBR tall boy, a rotating craft beer, or one of a few red Solo cup cocktails that include a boozy and fruity version of the classic New Orleans hurricane ladled from a giant glass jar on the counter. Order one and you'll hear a bell ring followed by a spirited shout of "Hurricane!" from one of the good-natured staff.

Originally, the red and white Welcome Diner, dating back to the 1940s or '50s, was constructed in Kansas before making its way to Phoenix. Since it rolled into town, the cheery space, with its bright red counter and sky blue walls and stools, has, for the most part, remained unchanged. But with a decades-old compact space (including a kitchen smaller than Babcock and Robinson's food truck) come sacrifices: You have to crawl on top of the counter to reach the sugar, store boxes of potatoes on the floor, and, when the power goes out, which it sometimes does, yell out, "Smokey Joe's Cafe!" before running out back to trip the switch.

But Babcock and Robinson seem to be taking it all in stride — and with a sense of humor. They've turned the outside eating area in the front of the diner into a kind of neighborhood get-together scene. Here, at colorful mismatched tables and chairs and a railing lined with potted plants and mason jars, families and friends share good food and conversation while funky beats play through the speakers. It's a scene that seems as friendly and informal as the one inside the diner itself. A plot of compact Southern comfort you hope will stay around for a while.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld