Ask anyone from Sunnyslope about the odd-shaped building at the end of Murphy Bridle Path, between Central Avenue and the Arizona Canal, and many may pause, a few may try to recollect some of its former monikers, and some simply may shrug before replying that it's never been much of anything — and what has been there hasn't lasted very long.
For years, the historic building's been more or less a revolving door of restaurants. In 2010, it opened as Dillon's on Top of Central, part of the locally owned Kansas City-style barbecue chain. Two years later, Dillon's closed. Before then, the structure had seen more than a half-dozen restaurant concepts set up camp within its sharply angled walls — Calico Cow, Gregory's on Central, Bridle Path Steakhouse, and more — all with similar shuttered results.
Now, as of February of this year, it's the home of Spoke & Wheel, a cyclist-centric bar and restaurant from Phoenix-based Wildthyme Restaurant Group, whose founders include Heinrich Stasiuk and chef Mercer Mohr. No strangers to the restaurant business, Stasiuk and Mohr also own Ken's Creekside in Sedona; Brick, the three-year-old gourmet pizzeria in downtown's Arizona Center; and Timo, the wine bar that took the place of Sunnyslope's South American-themed Bomberos (just up the street from Spoke & Wheel) in 2011.
But unlike Brick and Timo, which came out swinging, Stasiuk and Mohr's Spoke & Wheel seems to be, well, spinning its wheels when it comes to establishing its own identity. Even the stated definition of itself on its menu as a "San-Francisco-style tavern and chef-driven eatery serving up contemporary American cuisine with a Southwestern flair" sounds like it needs an interpreter. And, unfortunately, along with the restaurant's confusion comes a parade of mostly average dishes, many as forgettable as some of the building's former tenants.
You might expect a restaurant called Spoke & Wheel to offer a more upscale menu of familiar bar food standards and snacks — and it does. What you might not expect is that along with the gourmet cheeseburger, Southwest Caesar salad, and crispy calamari are dishes like tuna crudo, a house-smoked salmon platter, and a $23 pork chop. Not entirely a bad thing, but given that many of the restaurant's more straightforward dishes don't deliver on their promised flavors, the pricier and more unusual entries are, at least for now, best avoided.
To start, there is a perfectly acceptable plate of six tangy fried Buffalo wings. And although the Nacho Mama's featured ingredient of housemade chicken chorizo is barely noticeable, it's a passable appetizer, with a light cheese sauce and a side of tasty green salsa. As far as the street tacos and pozole go, you've had better elsewhere. And the aforementioned not-very-spicy spicy tuna crudo, presented with each piece of raw fish topped with a slice of burnt garlic and the whole group near drowning in a pool of soy sauce, it should have been 86'd at conception.
If there's a menu category Stasiuk and Mohr should focus on first, it is the signature burgers. They include a soft and sturdy bun, but the thick patty, a mix of ground sirloin strip and short rib, is woefully under-seasoned and results in the burgers relying on toppings such as bacon, chipotle mayo, and Hatch green chiles for flavor. And when it came to preparing the patties to my or my guest's temperature specifications, the kitchen never once got it right.
But the uninspired patties have little on another beefy, but leafier, item: the chopped steak salad. More or less a sloppy arrangement of dry pieces of steak, avocado slices, and limp greens blasted with avocado dressing and streaks of an unpleasantly cloying red sauce, the salad looks (and tastes) like it was run through an entirely different kitchen — specifically, Applebee's.
If you're a fish lover, you're in luck. The best sandwich of the bunch might be the one packed with chunks of white trout, crunchy sweet coleslaw, and a dab of hot sauce on a toasted bun. When it comes to the sides, opt for the sweet potato waffle fries or a side salad over the not-very-cheesy mac 'n' cheese, overcooked fingerling potatoes, and limp and oily charred garlic kale.
Fish triumphs again when put up against the larger entrée selections. Fish and chips features large hunks of pink-flesh red trout — a unique departure from the more familiar cod and haddock — whose lightly battered coating you may wish were crispier but whose firm meat exudes a nice, delicate flavor all the same. Overall, the dish fares better than a calamari fettucine, with not very much calamari tossed in a spicy and thin marinara, or the house-smoked Kurobuta pork chop. Well prepared and nicely seasoned — but with barely a trace of smoke — the heritage breed's trademarked tender meat and tasty fattiness are there, but its accompanying sides of soupy-sweet applesauce and inedible charred kale drowned in a garlicky oil make the meal hardly worth its $23 asking price.
From the outside, the long, angled space of Spoke & Wheel looks larger than it is within. There are a couple of special-occasion rooms on one side and a high-ceilinged main eating area with a bar and a door to a tapered outdoor patio on the other. A weathered wood floor, accents of brick, and a few pieces of bicycle-themed décor make the restaurant feel welcoming and friendly (there's even a gaming station for kids). But a ridiculous number of TVs (around a dozen, and all tuned to sports) is crazily distracting and, along with an often too-loud music track, plunges the bicycle-friendly tavern into bona fide sports bar territory.
If Stasiuk and Mohr seem to have left their newest restaurant venture to fend for itself, then the servers reflect the owners' negligence. Most seem to lack the training needed to help customers with dishes and, on a basic level, even the most simple and essential of tasks is treated with something that falls between confusion and apathy.
On the worst of my visits, a server needed the help of the guests at my table to lift dirty dishes out of the way of an incoming dessert plate — a process to which our table had become begrudgingly accustomed at each course.
As we waited for the server to bus the rest of the dishes, we stared at the dessert in the center of the table: a haphazard mess of two chunks of chocolate cake dwarfing a mini scoop of ice cream, with an avalanche of whipped cream oozing down its sides.
It wasn't any better than anything else we had tried that evening, but by that point, mediocrity was to be expected.