The Spot: Rusconi's American Kitchen 10637 N. Tatum Boulevard, Phoenix 480-483-0009 www.rusconiskitchen.com
Hours: Happy Hour is offered from 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday.
The Interior: Housed in a strip center containing Z'Tejas, Paradise Bakery, My Big Fat Greek Restaurant, Panda Express and a handful of other utterly mediocre corporate restaurants, Rusconi's seems destined for success by virtue of being the only independent as far as the eye can see. Nope, the bar isn't set very high at the corner of Tatum and Shea, so kudos to DIY chef-owner Michael Rusconi for setting his own, creating a warm, welcoming neighborhood spot featuring simulated hardwood floors, a wine wall, a gorgeous, character-laden community table, an exhibition kitchen, small patio and center-of-the-action bar. Filled with the soothing smell of wood smoke (from the wood-burning grill), the place strikes just the right balance between classy and comfortable.
The Food: Never mind that Rusconi's surname is Italian; his menu's focus is eclectic and purely American, featuring everything from fat burgers to risotto-like paella. Happy hour dishes, most of them pulled straight from the regular menu, are offered for two or three bucks less. Most of them represent an unbelievable bargain.
Take the poblano-glazed pork belly, for instance, a hot-sweet crunchy, melty hunk of meat that's everything pork belly ought to be -- served over creamy grits and spooned with sweet apple relish. Six bucks for this? I'll take three, please.
Also first-rate: Blue Hill Bay mussels, afloat in a Chardonnay-spiked smoked tomato broth lightened with lemongrass and accented with cilantro. It's almost Asian but not quite, and the fresh mussels are the best I've had in ages ($6).
Rusconi's half-pound Angus beef "Kitchen Burger" may not be my favorite in town (my heart belongs to St. Francis on this score), but it comes damn close, a smoky, satisfying fat-boy topped with goat cheese, balsamic onions, tomato, romaine and spicy tomato jam. What a fantastic combo ($9)! Served with fries, it's a deliciously straightforward, all-American dinner you'd pay almost as much for at a fast-food joint. Think about that.
Rusconi's "Kitchen Board" is an antipasto plate of firm Spanish chorizo, semi-hard San Joaquin Gold (a sweet-salty-buttery farmstead cheese from Fiscalini Farms in Modesto, CA), lightly spiced olives, excellent pesto and smoky-sweet, wood-roasted red peppers. It's a great plate for sharing, but I find myself thinking I'd like it even better if it had a bit more meat on it, which I wouldn't mind paying more for ($7).
The only downright dud is the tomato-mozzarella-basil flatbread, topped with Schreiner's sausage, which is marred by a soft, completely characterless crust ($7, $10 with sausage). Shucks, I wish we'd tried the goat cheese and artichoke fondue instead.
Since my visit Rusconi has added short rib sliders and mini Wagyu beef burgers. I'm eager to get back in for them.
The Drink: Happy hour features four $4 draft beers (including Deschutes and Four Peaks), $5 well cocktails and $7 selected wines by the glass. I'd like to see a broader beer selection, but that's just me.
Conclusion: Rusconi's kicks happy hour-butt. It may not be the best in the town (that's a tough bill to fill for anyone) but it's absolutely the best around.