An Essential Plate of Mashed Potatoes and Forever-Cooked Beef

Scotch beef from Tarbell's
Scotch beef from Tarbell's Chris Malloy
Welcome to the 2018 edition of The Essentials, our catalog of indispensable and quintessential Phoenix food and drink. From now until May, we'll be sharing 50 dishes, drinks, and food experiences that make up the culinary backbone (and personality) of metro Phoenix. This list is highly eclectic, mixing classics with newer and lesser-known favorites. But all The Essentials have one thing in common: We think they're required eating (and drinking) in metro Phoenix.

28: Scotch Beef and Mashed Potatoes from Tarbell's

These days in metro Phoenix, you can find Thai street food and progressive pasta, Iraqi gas station falafel and death-by-poke, milkshake IPAs and sake brewed in Arizona. The options are staggering. If you warped a person from the 1950s to the present and took them to eat, they would be stupefied. Not only are our food options wide, they are constantly widening.

Sometimes, though, you just want a classic.

There are a number of restaurants that provide a time warp — not to a future world, but to a past era of eating in the Valley. Though founded in 1994, Tarbell's is one such place.

The heart of the menu is divvied into two sections: seasonal dishes, and "things that the season can't change." The latter is where classics live. Roasted chicken. Spaghetti and meatballs. New York strip. The kind of hearty American food that relocates your mind and stomach to a predigital dining era.

A classic that sends you back viscerally: Tarbell's Scotch beef.

The preparation has been on the menu for a decade and a half. Before then, Mark Tarbell cooked the dish at one of his Tarbell's predecessors, Barmouche. There is nothing subtle about this dish, nothing refined but for presentation a shade on the elegant side. It's melting beef and potatoes, pure comfort, pure goodness, exactly what you're looking for when you order forever-cooked beef.

The shallow pool of demi-glace under the beef, vegetables, and mashed potatoes takes three days to make. It starts as veal bones simmering in beef stock. It cooks and cooks and cooks. So does the beef, low and slow overnight over a bed of vegetables.

As it tends to, all of this cooking intensifies flavors, softens textures.

Mashed potatoes sop up the demi-glace. They are a rich and decadent take on a food that is famously rich and decadent to begin with, doubling down by way of buttermilk. The plate of food isn't huge, especially for the price, but expect to fill up in a minute thanks to these silky potatoes.

You might be thinking, what the hell man? Potatoes and beef? I can cook that. Give me pho and nduja and mango gelato. Give me heirloom squash and smoked swordfish belly. Give me the strangest brew you can drink.

Yes, I share your thoughts. And I can cook that, too. But not with quite Tarbell's technique, not with the micro refinements, and not with feeling that can open a door to the past.

Tarbell's. 3213 East Camelback Road; 602-995-8100.
Monday to Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday 5 to 9 p.m.

The Essentials so far:
50: Soul food platter at Lo-Lo's Chicken & Waffles
49: The Bear at Short Leash Hot Dogs + Rollover Doughnuts
48: Grilled squid and other specialties at Andreoli Italian Grocer
47: I-10 Nachos at Cocina 10
46: Coffee made from ROC2 beans
45: The Haturo Sub Sandwich at Cheese 'n Stuff
44: Zookz at Zookz
43: Jade Red Chicken at Chino Bandido
42: Tasting menu at Quiessence at The Farm
41: Single-origin Papua New Guinea Bar at Zak's Chocolate
40: Green chile at Casa Reynoso
39: Brûlée burger from Paradise Valley Burger Company
38: Hand-pulled noodles from China Magic Noodle House
37: Carne adovada sliders at Dick's Hideaway
36: Crispy Pig Ear and Amaro cocktails from Crudo
35: Chile-laced specialties from Cafe Ga Hyang
34: Martinis at AZ88
33: Nooner at Duck & Decanter
32: Eggs Maximilian at Harlow's Cafe
31: Beef Tacos from Asadero Norte De Sonora
30: Orange Blossom from Huss Brewing Company
29: Rye bread from Yasha From Russia
28: Scotch Beef and Mashed Potatoes from Tarbell's
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy