Welcome to 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.
42: Gyro Omelet at Mel's Diner
Mel's Diner is a landmark Phoenix restaurant on a gritty stretch of Grand Avenue (a.k.a. Route 60) that's made its mark on American pop culture. If you're a lover of Americana and retro design, it's worth a visit just to gape at the diner's impressive roadside sign, which features a giant tilted coffee cup and arrow pointing toward the vintage, low-slung diner. If you're a fan of classic American film and TV, you'll want to come so you can later brag that you ate at the diner that served as the setting for Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and its '70s and '80s TV spinoff, Alice, a show that immortalized the phrase "Kiss my grits!"
Mel's Diner, in other words, is the place to go to immerse yourself in nostalgia — the long linoleum counter, the scruffy vinyl booths, the bottles of ketchup, the apple pie à la mode, the endless coffee refills, the friendly service, and the timeless question: "Hash browns or home fries?" It's like you wandered into a scene from Jack Kerouac's On the Road.
And the food, it turns out, is pretty good — classic diner breakfast and lunch fare that feels like coming home. So come for the nostalgia, but stay (and return) for the food.
There are so many good plates at Mel's — the Spanish Skillet is wonderful, and the Chicken Fried Steak isn't half-bad. Might we suggest the Gyro Omelet, though? There aren't that many places doing a gyro omelet. But why not? The popular and delicious mystery meat (most gyro meat that isn't on a rotating spit comes packaged as a seasoned beef and lamb loaf) was made to be enjoyed with scrambled eggs. The provenance of this specific gyro meat is unclear, but there's something fitting about the idea that it might be sliced straight from a loaf. The savory, slightly fragrant meat is chopped into short strips, fried up, and blended with lots of buttery egg, tomatoes, and onions. The omelet is deliciously amplified with half-molten nubs of salty feta cheese. We recommend enjoying it with a big helping of the home fries.
The Essentials so far:
50: Tequila Sunrise at the Arizona Biltmore.
49: "Dragon" Dumpling Burger at Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour.
48: Dizzy Fig Empanada at Republica Empanada.
47: Linguini carbonara at Avanti.
46: The Food Court at Mercado de los Cielos.
45: Chicken Feta Salad at George's Kitchen.
44: The Baja Spinach & Feta Cheese Chimi at Mi Patio.
43: Dinner at Rustler's Rooste.