When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out and let you know our initial impressions. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: Salty Sow Location: 4801 East Cactus Road Open: Three days Eats: Contemporary American cuisine Price: $11 to $30 per person
Salty Sow is the kind of restaurant that seems poised for national franchise glory. Its name's a nod to the swine-minded food trend that's skyrocketed pork belly to near rock star status on menus. Its interior is subtle in theme while still giving off a sense of independent ownership. And the food is advertised as "providing a high-end dining experience without the high-end check."
Salty Sow owners Guy Villavaso and Larry Foles know a little something about franchises. The successful restaurateurs launched Z'Tejas, Roaring Fork, and sold their Eddie V's and Wildfish concepts last year to Darden Restaurants Inc. for $59 million.
Salty Sow in Phoenix is the second location of the duo's Austin-based original. But when it comes to flavor, this swine can be a snoozer.
The menu is a listing of familiar American dishes, many with a Southern spin. On the libations side, there are 21 choices of hand-crafted cocktails with names like Miss Piggy, Wallow, and Curly Tail, as well as specialty margaritas.
There is a fairly basic charcuterie board ($15) that, with the exception of a pastrami salmon and a very good chicken liver mousse, isn't very interesting, and it comes with more horseradish than you'll probably know what to do with.
Even more uninspired, although the name would lead you to believe otherwise, is the Green Eggs & Ham ($7). Under the Jeopardy!-like category of "Things in a Jar," it's more or less a DIY biscuit and gravy. The mix of the things in the jar (egg, grits, bits of ham, and Parmesan basil) tastes like not much of anything, and the biscuit to pour them over is too hard biscuit. This dish might be better listed under "Uninteresting Eats."
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On the entrees, if your friendly and knowledgeable server tells you the milk-braised pork shoulder ($16) is fall-apart tender and very good she is correct. But when it arrives, atop a few white beans and a couple bits of escarole and garnished with a fried pork rind and, the reality is more "pile of meat" than "pork entree with sides." If that's your thing, go for it.
Salty Sow is sprawling and comfortable place. Decor touches of raw timber and brick accent leather seating, modest chandeliers, and low lights for a modern farmhouse feel; and paintings of pigs, a logo banner over the exhibition kitchen, and the words "Slow Cooked" painted giant-style on the wall make sure that diners don't forget where they are.
At this point, Salty Sow could use a kick to make it a noteworthy spot for Phoenix diners. Otherwise, along with nearby Outback Steakhouse, Tilted Kilt, and Olive Garden, it's just another chain in the neighborhood.