There's something about The Herb Box that makes me want to play hooky.
As spring fever strikes with a vengeance after a fairly gloomy winter, it doesn't take much to justify an extended lunch on the patio here. All it takes is an appetite.
Michele Laudig cafe
The Herb Box
7134 East Stetson Drive, Scottsdale
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; Sunday brunch, 8 a.m. to 3
Smoked trout beignet: $10
Cornbread-stuffed pork chop: $22
Honey-roasted salmon: $19
This new Old Town Scottsdale location of the popular DC Ranch eatery (which also has a new-ish outpost in Minnesota) is situated at the heart of SouthBridge, in the former Estate House space, and would be prime real estate no matter what time of year it is.
But considering the restaurant turnover that SouthBridge has had in its three-year existence — FoodBar and its successor, Metro Brasserie; Canal and subsequent Aqua; Digestif; and the aforementioned Estate House — it's clear that the ritzy location alone doesn't guarantee success along Stetson Drive. Like nearby FnB, which is packed every night thanks to a smart mix of great food, cozy atmosphere, and desirable location, The Herb Box nails casual, accessible eats and chic vibe, making it an asset to this posh 'hood.
Without a doubt, The Herb Box has radically shifted the energy on this corner in a good way, not only with the street-level gourmet market, where you can grab something to go on the corner at Stetson Drive, but with new entrances to the main restaurant.
As gorgeous as Estate House was, the place always seemed impossibly fortress-like — grand and intimidating and hard to figure out. The inaccessibility made it feel remote, even though it was right on the canal, and I always felt sad when I walked by and saw that big, beautiful patio full of empty tables and flickering candles.
The business survived a couple of years and was even re-concepted after the economy tanked (the luxury mansion theme suddenly seemed gauche), but to me, one big reason that restaurant didn't survive was simply a matter of feng shui. If nobody knows how to get into your joint, they won't try hard, if they even bother at all. (Of course, there are exceptions — a speakeasy-style bar like nearby Kazimierz can actually capitalize on a pseudo-secret entrance.)
So the fact that there are now a few different ways to waltz into The Herb Box means that it's finally taken its rightful place as a hub of activity for SouthBridge.
You can while away the hours chatting with friends, watching folks stroll across the bridge as a trolley rumbles past, sipping icy lemonade (or something a little stronger), tucking into big, colorful salads and mouthwatering sandwiches, and enjoying the warmth of the sun on your face while you still can stand it. It's a little slice of utopia at one of the most pedestrian-friendly spots in the Valley. (Obviously, there's great people-watching.)
Likewise, the food is clever and appealing, but also accessible. Who wouldn't want to chow down on a juicy brown sugar pork ciabatta sandwich with a heap of crispy sweet potato chips, or maybe a pile of sweet, spongy red velvet pancakes with mascarpone cream? (That's my favorite dish du jour.) What The Herb Box brings to this area is a casual option for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that still fits the bill as a stylish hangout.
I have to poke fun at the name, though. I realize that owner Susan Smerderovac-Wilcox and chef-owner Becky Windels got their start in 1995, as an event-planning and catering biz, and perhaps they never envisioned their success leading them to such a high-profile area as SouthBridge. I sat here at dinner one night, noticing that practically every table was filled with women, and scratching my head over why that would be. There's actually nothing feminine about the clean, contemporary atmosphere inside, so why the dearth of dudes?
Then, my date pointed out that no guy would invite his buddies to a restaurant called The Herb Box. It just makes sense. Of course! So, ladies, you might have to twist your guy's arm to come here, but I promise he'll be at ease once he sees that it's not a palace of rainbows and unicorns.
Better yet, just shove the menu in front of him as soon as possible, and point out the succulent pork chop, stuffed with cornbread and served with a goat cheese potato cake and a savory pile of Brussels sprout-pancetta hash. Another smart bet to quell a rumbling belly is the open-faced Kobe feta burger with crispy shallots and a refreshing fingerling potato salad.
Hot honey-roasted salmon was moist and flavorful, but even better was the interesting chickpea side dish, kicked into high gear with aromatic Indian spices. And although it was hard to choose just one flatbread, I couldn't resist the one that contrasted sweet pear with Gorgonzola, Asiago, pesto, and fried sage.
You can also craft a meal out of shared plates, available at both lunch and dinner. Smoked trout beignets were a highlight, fried to a deep golden crisp yet gooey on the inside, studded with bits of red pepper and teamed with red pepper aioli and tiny slivers of cornichon. For a bigger group, the chilled cilantro-lime crab dip was a good choice. Served with a big pile of crunchy plantain chips, this was something I couldn't stop eating even after the main dishes arrived.
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Albacore tuna salad, a mayo-free version scooped onto a mound of arugula dressed with lemon-caper vinaigrette, wasn't bad. I found the steak salad more intriguing, though, with the crunch of watercress, pecans, bacon, and dried sweet corn contrasting with soft avocado and tender meat. Succulent bird, smothered with sage pesto, goat cheese, bacon, and apple, made the grilled chicken sandwich a winner, too.
And speaking of bacon, it was the star of a memorable breakfast — thick, crisp, smoky, and some of the best I've had in ages. As I mentioned earlier, the red velvet pancakes were a delight (with or without the side of Gran Marnier syrup), and I can't wait to go back for more. I also sampled some top-notch chilaquiles — a bowl of tortilla strips topped with scrambled eggs and a gringo-mild tomatillo and pulled pork sauce. I could've handled more spice, but still, that pork was decadent.
Although dessert is certainly an excuse to hang out longer at The Herb Box, it has its own merits. I'd recommend the moist Guinness chocolate cake, layered with espresso frosting, or S'Mores crème brûlée with soft housemade marshmallows for folks with a sweet tooth. If you're more adventurous and like a savory-sweet dynamic, go for dazzling honey-roasted pears with Gorgonzola and rich pine-nut caramel.
Is it too much to say that The Herb Box really brought this corner to life? Not in my book. If anything, I think it's the start of another Old Town upswing.