If the farmers market at downtown's Phoenix Public Market is one of the Valley's most notable spots for finding fresh locally grown and locally produced food, then the adjacent Phoenix Public Market Café may be the hippest place to partake of its bounty.
The restaurant certainly is vintage-chic enough in its design. Flooded by natural light, a large, open room with a vaulted ceiling, exposed wooden beams, and brick walls welcome guests into a space appointed with antique items like chandeliers and stove burners as well as mod cons such as power plugs at picnic tables and an $8,000 water station offering do-it-yourself hydration of both the sparkling and still kind.
The scene would be idyllic if not for the sometimes lackluster eats. It's a surprising letdown when you consider the man behind the restaurant.
Aaron Chamberlin, chef-owner of St. Francis (and a proponent of farm-to-table eating himself), along with partners David Chamberlin and Amy Del Real, opened Phoenix Public Market Café this May. And given the fact that the historic building's former self, the Phoenix Public Market Urban Grocery and Wine Bar — downtown's only locally focused market — was shuttered last spring and sat silent at its home on Pierce Street for almost a year, a large contingent of Valley locavores and downtown denizens alike couldn't have been happier.
Chamberlin set the bar high with St. Francis, where he makes a habit of using superb seasonal ingredients. At Phoenix Public Market Café, they're featured in more casual, simple dishes such as sandwiches, salads, and bowls — many of which are vegetarian-, vegan-, and dairy-free friendly. Some offerings are superb and deceptively effortless; others make you feel that you (or, perhaps, Whole Foods) could have done better. And because the dishes here are sometimes two or three dollars more than you'd expect them to be, the bad apples at this marketplace make for a sour bite.
Like the $10 AZ Burger, an uninspired offering with a forgettable bun and a green chile topping you'd be hard-pressed to find. Add to it unpleasant $3 sides like limp fries, a coleslaw blasted with caraway seeds, or a woefully underseasoned cup of Southwest black bean soup with a consistency more stew-like than velvety and thick, and you've got $13 worth of disappointment.
The same caraway-heavy coleslaw tops the $9.50 barbecue pulled pork, which, along with a too-strong sauce, effectively snuffs out the taste of the mesquite-roasted meat. And the salad at the same price, called the Chino, is more or less a tedious bowl of onion-y cole slaw frugally strewn with bits of chicken, cashews, and a few thin strands of rice noodles huddled at the bottom of the bowl.
But if you don't mind gnawing your way through the chewy, impossible-to-cut open-face Roosevelt Row Bagel for its very good slatherings of lemony hummus and chunky avocado, you'll be rewarded with a satisfying light lunch or snack — even if your dining companions have to point out your efforts have left a microgreen or two on your face. There's also a supremely fresh and colorful salad with marinated, steamed, and raw seasonal veggies that taste as if they were plucked from the nearest neighborhood garden that morning.
And although chicken salad might be the last thing you'd think to order at any restaurant, you'll want the one here. Made with curry and layered onto thick and crunchy grain bread, the taste is earthy and fresh, and the almonds and celery give this good-size hoagie — kindly cut into three, easy-to-eat pieces — a gratifying crunch.
Of the house specialties, you've had better rotisserie chicken elsewhere. Instead, opt for the pork chile verde pot pie. Featuring mouthwateringly tender pork with a deep, flavorful heat packed into a golden flaky crust, it's more or less a Mexican meal gone the way of Grandma's kitchen. And for those who can part with $18 for what is easily the best dish on the menu, you'll want the roasted salmon. Succulent, rich, and with just the right amount of seasoning atop a delicately crisp skin, it's almost impossibly perfect, one of the best in town. Order it with a side of heady baked sweet potatoes lit up with chili lime butter.
In the morning, there's breakfast (served until 3 p.m. for the late risers), with cups of Cartel coffee and dishes like the satisfying Evans-Churchill, a hearty bowl of poached eggs, veggies, quinoa, and pesto, and the less-so chickpea pancakes that, on my visit, were burned black on the bottom.
You can hardly help joining the hustle and bustle here, and that's kind of the point. You may move from the outdoor herb garden at the restaurant's entrance to shelves of for-sale local products until arriving at a pastry case of homemade baked goods (think jumbo cookies, cinnamon rolls, and vegan granola bars) next to the ordering counter. And an abundance of seating options — stools, padded benches, community tables, sofas — means you'll probably wander around a bit before deciding to settle in at the indoor-outdoor bar, desert-landscaped patio, front lounge, or casual dining area. Even the friendly staff, clad in denim aprons, bounces from table to table to deliver food, clear plates, and chat with guests with the geniality of many a farmers market vendor.
The Phoenix Public Market Café may be taking its cues from the farmers market next door, but given its location and contemporary vibe, the real attraction here might be its role as a decent downtown watering hole. Regularly packed with folks from the neighborhood as well as students from ASU's downtown Phoenix campus, the restaurant's seasonal drafts, glasses of local wines, and trendy cocktails make their way into awaiting hands nearly as often (if not more) than the food.
Sometimes it's nice just to appreciate a better downtown Phoenix, no matter what form it takes.