Cafe Reviews

Jewel's Bakery and Cafe: Go for the Baked Goods Not the Cafe

Anyone who's been meaning to check out Jewel's Bakery and Café might make haste. Not because there's no better place than this East Thomas Road diner for gluten-free breakfast and lunch fare, but because it's hard to believe this place is going to be open much longer. The service and the food (baked goods aside) at this place are so dreadful, it's a wonder they've managed to stay open at all, these past six months.

The brainchild of Jewel's Cupcake Shop owner Julie Moreno, the bistro grew out of that Internet-only bakery. Moreno opened her cozy, neatly decorated cafe in December; her daughter Justine, whose gluten allergies inspired Moreno to learn to bake without wheat flour, is the chef and restaurant manager.

"When I needed to go gluten-free for my daughter, I thought, 'Why should she have to eat stuff that tastes weird or the texture is off?'" Julie Moreno tells me. "Also, I've got six kids. I needed to figure out how to cook and bake so that I was just making one thing for everybody, not something special for each one. My challenge was, how do I cook but not hear them say, 'Ew! Is this gluten free?' I wanted them to say nothing but 'Thank you.'"

That desire led Moreno to creating, as she put it, "a restaurant that was something other than a place where people with allergies could go to eat their weird food."

Julie's baked goods are wonderful. But Justine has been less successful than her mother at making "weird food" taste better. Her less-successful menu of gluten-free and vegan lunch and breakfast items falls mostly flat. While it's nice that people with food allergies have a place to go for lunch, I — a person who can digest wheat flour just fine — would return only for Jewel's cupcakes and cookies, which are excellent and not over-sugared, like so many altered dessert items tend to be.

I've enjoyed Mom Moreno's candied bacon cinnamon roll, a perfect combination of sweet syrup and salty bacon that tastes surprisingly like the real thing. Her scones offer that rare mix of dense cakiness and flaky softness, without being dry or too crumbly. And her sticky buns sure don't taste anything-free: moist, sticky-sweet, dripped with slightly tart icing, they're better than most I've tasted made with wheat flour.

Justine Moreno may not be the best, but she's a smart businessperson: Her mom's delicious desserts are displayed in a gleaming chrome case next to which all counter-service orders are taken. A larger display case next to this suggests that Moreno plans to sell something else (Rice milk? Gluten-free yogurt?), but every time I visited, the case was empty.

So was the restaurant, for the most part, when I recently stopped in for breakfast. Local businesspeople came for to-go orders of coffee and sweets, but I stayed for Biscuit Plates and Hash, a confusing description for what appeared to be biscuits and gravy. Bland gravy, and leaden biscuits, as it turned out. I asked the young man who took my order how the side of hash made from bacon, sausage, and chorizo was gluten-free — was it made from turkey or maybe gluten-free pork? He wasn't sure, which was discouraging in a place that specializes in such specific fare. Regardless of what it was made of, the hash was spicy and filling. And cold.

All was not lost: The wheat-free pancakes were fluffy and light, with a nutty flavor and a nice dollop of warm apple-cinnamon compote. The cinnamon raisin roll was moist and cakey and went well with a hot, black cup of Cartel coffee.

On a second visit, I ordered the BLT, but I can't tell you how it was because I was served instead a limp and greasy grilled cheese sandwich. I suppose it's possible that gluten-free bread doesn't grill well, but can one blame celiac disease for limp slices of flax? A nicely roasted red pepper added a pleasant kick, but it was plopped into the center of a melted mélange of cheddar, mozzarella, and havarti, so I only got to taste it in one or two bites. Better were the tissue-paper-thin potato chips, too many of which were smothered by the slippery sandwich plopped on top of them. Those I rescued were light, crispy, and perfectly salted.

The Berries 'n' Baby Lettuce Salad was notable only because it combined so many different things — strawberries, raspberries, organic beets, and scoops of soft goat cheese, served with a side of balsamic — and yet was somehow so flavorless.

The cheesecake I ordered for dessert was also crowded with ingredients — toasted coconut; mini chocolate chips; a moist, dark chocolate crust; all slathered in a caramel glaze — that obscured a smooth and slightly tart tower of sweet, cheesy filling. The carrot cake cupcake was a success: moist and carroty and smeared with a generous dollop of tart cream cheese frosting.

My third and final visit was also a fiasco. After my companion and I ordered a flatbread pizza and a pair of salads, the young fellow manning the cash register told us the credit card machine was broken, and he could take only cash. Who carries cash? Companion and I were able to rustle up the almost 30 bucks between us, but when our food was delivered, there was only one salad. Our waiter the cashier headed back to the kitchen to find our mislaid kale Caesar, and when he returned, he announced that he hadn't rung up a second salad, and because he still couldn't accept credit cards, we'd have to give him another $14 in cash. I thought for a moment about heading out in search of an ATM to pay for still more disappointing food, but didn't.

 Good thing. The Thai flatbread was a letdown. The nicely dense, wheat-free bread was topped with a whisper of peanut sauce and a grating of melted white cheddar — an odd cheese choice for Thai anything. I eventually found the carrots mentioned in the menu description: two tiny shavings hiding under one of several slices of moist but flavorless breast meat.

The underwhelming Southwest chicken salad offered local greens tossed with a dropper-full of cilantro lime dressing, more of that flavorless white meat chicken, and a tasty teaspoon's worth of red chile roasted corn. Tortilla strips clotted with chili powder attempted to make this sorry salad more "Southwestern." My companion suggested we stop somewhere and get a burger on the way home.

Apparently, others are doing the same, rather than stopping by Jewel's: The café was a morgue each time I dropped in for a bite. Perhaps Julie Moreno should have stuck to making cupcakes.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela