Sweet Buttermilk Pie at Phoenix City Grille

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With a generic name and an all-American menu that at first glance doesn't look like anything special, Phoenix City Grille might not seem like much. That is, until you actually go there and dine. The interior is plush and comforting, although also fairly generic, with the only unique personality shining through in some Halloween decorations carefully placed amongst the desert-themed interior: plastic skeleton feet flanked by seasonal gourds, as well as a tall glass cylinder filled with glass pebbles, black roses, and a skull. You almost don't notice them -- similar to the food, which you'd never know is so good until you take a bite.

See also: Wait 'Til You See the Final Celebrity Baker Lineup for Pie Social 2012!

Yet the food, even something as simple as a bacon bleu cheeseburger, is well-executed and surprisingly worth the $13 price tag. Not only are the classic sandwiches and entrees tasty, but the desserts, provided by pastry chef Shelley Au, are worth a visit on their own. And in case you can't make it to 16th Street and Bethany Home Road, you can also find her luscious treats at Shelley's Specialty Desserts in Downtown Glendale.

Before getting to all of the great stuff about this dessert, there's just one criticism to share: the crust. While perfectly flaky, it was a little dense and not tender enough. The portion under the filling was wonderful, but the exposed crust was difficult to break with a spoon. It's worth noting that Shelley's website specifies that "this southern-style pie is sweet, light custard baked until golden over a flaky crust." So, it's safe to say that the crust is supposed to lean more toward the flaky end of the spectrum than the tender side.

Regardless of the crust, which really wasn't bad anyway, this pie left me wondering why on earth Shelley Au didn't enter the 3rd Annual Pie Social competition, taking place Saturday, November 3. There might be some serious competition from popular bakers, including Brady Breese of Urban Cookies and Tonya Saidi of Mamma Toledo Pies, but she would be a tough contender. There's always next year.

What's so impressive about this pie? Balance. The slice sits on top of a generous amount of no-nonsense caramel sauce, neither thick nor thin, presenting a very classic flavor. Caramel can easily be too sweet, too salty, or too dark, but the flavor of this sauce rests right in the middle. (Speaking of competitions, maybe you should think about next year's Caramelpalooza too, Shelley.)

This is a dessert you have to eat to really understand, so there's not much to say about the filling except...where have you been all my life? Thanks to a generous helping of sugar and butter, the buttermilk custard filling is not at all tart or sour like its namesake. Again, balance is the key. While the ingredients are extremely rich, the resulting pie is not nearly as heavy as crème brûlée or thick pudding. This is a great classic pie that will appeal to anyone, and even though the flavors aren't innovative and appear to be plain, this dessert is far from boring. In fact, I would happily eat some every day, especially with the ripe strawberries, which are a surprisingly wonderful complement, not a mere garnish.

Holiday tip: Order one of these pies for Thanksgiving. You won't even miss the pumpkin.

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