When it comes to finding the flavors of their city, many an ex-Gothamite has been dragged to joints all over the Valley touting real a New York vibe and authentic Big Apple fare.
Bill Olear didn't find his New York in any of them.
"Most places take a nostalgic view of the city, with photos of old scenery and the Rat Pack, but that's not what New York is," says Olear. "It's a vibrant, progressive city, constantly on the go. And you can get sandwiches made with quality ingredients at a good price."
And at Olear's fast-casual eatery, New York Flavor, the sandwiches are very good.
From New York favorites to specialty creations, there are more than 25 to choose from. They are hefty, two-handed affairs packed with fresh meats, cheeses, and produce between quality bread from Wildflower Bread Co. and Tempe's Jonathan Robins Bakery. Each is served with a choice of several tasty sides like golden, hand-cut fries and housemade potato salad loaded with onion and dill. And, like any New York City eatery worth its salt, bottles of Dr. Brown's soda are available.
In the New York favorites section, there's a solid Reuben and a house recipe chicken salad that, like the potato salad, features a strong dill flavor. Better choices include the classic hot corned beef sandwich, stacked sliced and lean with just the right amount of yellow mustard nestled between pieces of marble rye, and the Philly cheesesteak, a favorite with regulars, served bulky and warm and packed with small pieces of thin-sliced steak, caramelized onions, peppers, and provolone on a wonderfully soft long roll.
When it comes to the names of New York Flavor's signature sandwiches, Olear takes diners on a trip through the city with monikers like Arthur Avenue, Herald Square, and Delancey Street — and it's difficult to make a wrong turn anywhere. You could spend some time in Little Italy with a satisfying ciabatta-packed grinder of Genoa salami, provolone, and roasted peppers with mayo, mustard, and a balsamic reduction; get to Midtown for a veggie-filled flavor fest made with grilled peppers, zucchini, squash, mushrooms, red onions, eggplant, and pesto on a pillowy baguette; or take a taste of my favorite neighborhood-named sandwich, the Tribeca. This hunk of cold comfort features thin-sliced roast beef piled between ciabatta bread along with caramelized onions, tomatoes, and lettuce with just enough creamy horseradish mayo for a zing in every bite.
"The East Coast uses a lot more mayo versus the West Coast, which uses more mustard," Olear says. "And we use quality mayonnaise, which makes a big difference."
Olear hails from Freeport, Long Island, and spent more than 20 years in the oil business. After a few independent ventures, he decided to realize his dream of owning a New York-style eatery by learning from the ground up — which meant working in New York restaurants owned by his friends, in positions from busser to server to cook.
"It wasn't like in the movies," Olear says. "It was much hotter."
When Olear and wife Lynn moved to the Valley in 2010 to be closer to their son, they liked the openness of Surprise, not just as a place to settle down, but as a location for a restaurant, which they opened in October of last year.
"The west side is all about chains," Olear says. "I thought it might be a city where an independent business could be successful."
Not a chef, Olear hooked up with one, Washington-born Craig Emmons, to bring the flavors of New York sandwiches, salads, burgers, and other bites to life. And at this small but comfortable counter-service eatery, ex-New Yorkers, or those who just want to eat like one, can find great-tasting food for less than a ferry ticket to see the Statue of Liberty.
Hidden within New York Flavor's burgers and hot dog selection — featuring items like a Coney Island Dog covered in chili, a New York burger topped with pastrami and Swiss cheese, and three baby burgers featuring ground beef medallions called Yankee Sliders — are two more noteworthy gems that don't take their cues from the Big Apple, but are worth taking a detour for all the same.
Emmons' acknowledged obsession with imaginative hamburger creations is deliciously evident in his stellar basil mascarpone burger. Featuring a well-seasoned beef patty layered with caramelized onions, meaty and moist strips of roasted portabellos, luscious mascarpone cheese, and long, thin ribbons of aromatic basil between a lightly grilled soft bun, its unique combination of flavorful ingredients make this burger more gourmet than fast-casual fare. And as one of the best I've had in the Valley, it's almost worth a drive to Surprise for.
Admittedly, when the friendly counter gal suggested I try New York Flavor's popular veggie burger, I waited for the punch line. When none came, I ordered it, took a bite, and instantly understood why. A recipe from Olear's wife, Lynn, this surprisingly moist patty, made with black beans, mushrooms, celery, carrots, beets, onions, and seasoning, is served up thin and flavorful on a fluffy bun. The secret to its success, Emmons tells me, is nearly no filler, as well as a thin dusting of flour that makes for a light and crispy crust when it's grilled. Even my carnivorous dining companions had to admit it was one of the best items they'd tried.
Salads and pasta dishes can be found on the menu, as well, and although they don't pack the same interesting flavors as the sandwiches, they are safe bets. There's a Southwest Caesar that gets surprisingly lively due to a spicy chipotle dressing. And for pasta entrees, a slice of cheesy, meatless lasagna fares better than a less-remarkable eggplant Parmesan.
In addition to lunch, New York Flavor serves all-day breakfast items like pancakes, omelets, a spicy French toast, bagels that Olear buys par-baked from Scottsdale's New York Bagels 'N Bialys before finishing them off firm, and, for New Yorkers who consider eggs on a roll a major food group, a New York classic egg sandwich.
Desserts at fast-casual places like this can sometimes seem like a plastic-wrapped afterthought, but not at New York Flavor. Lynn Olear makes most of them in-house, and if you're too full for a sweet ending to a meal, they come in individual take-home containers. Two standouts include a wonderfully moist classic chocolate cake with a thick and fudgy icing and a rich yet light New York cheesecake with a golden brown crust and a bottom of heavenly sponge cake.
If you are not facing the counter with a view into the kitchen, New York Flavor could be mistaken for a small living room, an observation Olear credits to the décor choices of his wife. Along the wall are photographs of New York, taken by Olear on his many walks through the city; a few chandeliers with two in the back emulating the those of the Metropolitan Opera House, which ascend from the floor to the ceiling to announce the beginning of an opera; and a large, wall-mounted screen showing a live-streaming view of Times Square so that diners, Olear says, can get a feel for the lifestyle.
And of course, Olear has New York egg creams, the unique beverage most associated with soda fountains in Brooklyn. He says his method of a half-inch of Fox's U-Bet chocolate syrup followed by an inch of milk and seltzer water for the remainder of the glass is the most successful way to make one — and after my first sip of creamy meets chocolaty meets fizzy refreshment, I couldn't find fault with his thinking.