The Larder + The Delta, the Southern-inflected food counter inside downtown Phoenix's historic DeSoto Central Market, is the kind of highly touted new restaurant that makes you wonder whether it will measure up to the hype. People gush about the cauliflower, of all things, designed to evoke the flavor and texture of Buffalo-style wings. Then there's the other dish people rave about: crispy pig ears garnished with crumbled Cheetos.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
As it turns out, The Larder + The Delta (formerly known as The Yard Bird + Larder, the recent change came after legal struggles) lives up to the hype. And it manages to do so in a remarkably small space. The food counter, with just six metal stools overlooking the tidy, 350-square-foot open kitchen, is not the place to go when you're craving a full-service dining experience. You won't come here for the romance of white tablecloths, patio views, or fancy cocktails (though you can find the latter a few steps away at the DCM Bar). You'll come for a taste of executive chef Stephen Jones' playful, twisty menu of Southern-inspired eats, which — for the most part — are deliriously good.
If you've been following Jones' career, you know he's spent the past decade or so climbing through the ranks of various kitchens in metro Phoenix, including Tarbell's, Latilla at the Boulders resort, and Bootleggers Modern American Smokehouse. But it was at Blue Hound Kitchen + Cocktails at the Hotel Palomar, where he was the first executive chef, that Jones earned a strong reputation for skillfully playing with elements of Southern, French, and New American cuisines. It's been years, but people still talk about the foie gras-infused cornbread he developed at Blue Hound.
Today, Jones is at the helm of several of the dining concepts at DeSoto Central Market, including the oyster-champagne bar, Walrus & The Pearl, and a gourmet burger joint, DCM Burger. But The Larder + The Delta is Jones' flagship market eatery, a quirky, seasonally driven food stand that seems to revel in pushing simple ingredients into brighter, bolder territory.
Take the restaurant's cauliflower dish, which has earned somewhat of a cult following. The milky white veggie is dressed up in a bright orange sauce — a savory and complex blend of blue cheese, pickled celery, and Homeboy's Hot Sauce — then lightly fried to produce a lovely and subtle crisp. The dish is so tasty, and so popular, it has become a permanent fixture on the menu. Then there are the Cheeto's fried pig ears, so good you might never look at your dog's favorite chew toy in the same way again. The salty, fatty strips — deep-fried and then dusted with cheesy, airy crumbles of the Frito-Lay snack — fill a void you never knew existed. On a recent visit, they were served in an elegant ceramic tureen, the knotty, shard-like pieces of pig ears piled up like exotic bar pretzels. Crispy at the edges and slightly chewy at their gelatinous core, each feather-light strip erupted with sweet, rich porky flavor.
If noshing on fried pig ears isn't enough of an indulgence, try the fried chicken skin po boy. The sandwich is both decadent and dead simple, the kind of thing a bored, hungry teenager might try to piece together with some leftover KFC and a couple of stale bread rolls. But at The Larder, the snack is gussied up with a gourmet pedigree. During a recent dinner, I marveled at the beautifully fried chicken skin, crisp and blissfully ungreasy, tucked into a couple of soft Hawaiian rolls. The tidy sandwich, unabashedly fatty and carby at its core, was lightened by a sweet-spicy cabbage slaw and laced through with a vinegary hot sauce aioli.
Hoppin' John, a rice and peas dish with deep roots in the antebellum South, is another highlight. It's spicy, aromatic, and beautifully simple, perfumed subtly with the scent of cumin and peppers. But it's the delicate Carolina Gold rice, tossed with ruddy Sea Island peas, that pushes the dish toward greatness. The soft rice is cooked until it's slightly crispy; every crunchy-chewy bite flares with spice and marvelous texture.
If you're still hungry, there's the wonderful KFQ, or Kentucky fried quail. During a recent dinner, I watched the chef on duty deep-fry the small bird, which previously had marinated in rich buttermilk, to a shatteringly delicate crisp. Its meat was tender as silk, and impossibly juicy. The quail alone would have made a memorable meal, but it was happily accompanied by a bowl of luscious red bean and sausage gravy. The most memorable part of the dish, however, was the foie gras biscuit. It was thick and buttery and so soft you could scoop out the insides with your spoon like cream.
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The Larder + The Delta's fun, freewheeling menu isn't perfect. There are no desserts on the menu, which is a shame; it would be fun to see what Jones' and his crew might come up with on this front. Also, lunchtime offerings aren't nearly as exciting as most of what the kitchen whips up after 5 p.m. On a recent lunchtime visit, for example, the menu overflowed with run-of-the-mill sandwiches, including an unremarkable griddle cheese sandwich and a catfish po boy that was bland and much too dry.
But, overall, The Larder + The Delta is delicious proof that great food is as likely to come out of a food stall as it is a big, upscale kitchen. Let's hope the scent of deep-fried chicken skins lure more eaters into DeSoto Central Market's food hall, which has struggled to reach full occupancy since opening its doors earlier this year. With its artfully peeling walls, sun-drenched mezzanine, and Art Deco flourishes — the long, angular DCM Bar looks like it was lifted off the set of a Fred and Ginger musical — DeSoto Central Market is a lovely and unique space. And as the fancy kitchen work of The Larder + The Delta demonstrates, the DeSoto is also a fine place to discover your next great meal.
The Larder + The Delta
915 North Central Avenue
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Pig ears $7
Hoppin' John $10
Kentucky fried quail $16