Cafe Reviews

Worth the Drive

"Geez, Michele, are we driving to New Mexico?"

The two guys I was dragging to dinner weren't particularly hungry when we hopped on the I-10 in central Phoenix, but by the time we were pretty far out on the Santan 202 — that new stretch of highway south of Chandler Boulevard — their appetites kicked into overdrive.

"This place better be good!"

Hang on, I told them, let's just wait and see. Lucky for me, my friends wound up happy. Me too. Never thought I'd say this about a fast-food place, but it's worth the drive.

I've logged a lot of miles in search of a decent meal in this town, but Joe's Farm Grill has got to be the most far-flung restaurant I've been to. I live in central Phoenix, but even most people in the East Valley will have a trek to get to this place, too. It's way out in east Gilbert, in a new master-planned community called Agritopia. Agriculture's giving way to new housing developments all along the outskirts of metro Phoenix, but Agritopia, built on farmland that's been in use since 1927, distinguishes itself with a 12-acre urban farm at the center of the community. It provides Joe's Farm Grill with everything from fresh lettuce and tomatoes to beets and basil.

"I like to blend the best of the old and the new, adapting things for new uses," says Joe Johnston, who grew up on the farm and whose parents still reside at Agritopia. Their original home, built in 1966, has been converted into a retro-futuristic, butterfly-roofed burger stand.

Johnston's long had the idea to open a restaurant on the family farm, but he's had plenty going on in the meantime. An engineer by training, he co-founded the successful Coffee Plantation chain in 1989, which he later sold. Then, in 1998, Johnston opened Joe's Real BBQ, a vintage-flavored barbecue joint in a 1929 brick building on Gilbert Road. His next project is the Liberty Market, a 1918 structure he's restoring, also in downtown Gilbert.

"One little idea leads to another," Johnston says of the grill. "I thought, if we had a restaurant here, it would be nice to walk to it." Before long, his concept expanded from a farm restaurant into a whole surrounding community. Builder Scott Homes broke ground on Agritopia in 2001, and now about 70 percent of the residences — a variety of architectural styles inspired by historic districts in Phoenix — are occupied. Along with Joe's Farm Grill, Agritopia also has a private school, a produce stand, and an independently run bakery/coffee shop.

The notion of a meeting place was always part of the concept, Johnston adds. "Product is important, but so is place."

My first time there, I immediately got what a unique place this is.

By day, families sat at picnic tables scattered throughout the tree-dotted yard, with shaggy dogs and little kids. By night, a sleek neon sign cast a surreal glow on blue-speckled outdoor tables. Part of the former home has been converted into a kitchen area, where people lined up to place orders at the sliding window. Across the breezeway, the family living room is now an enclosed dining room, done up in Jetsons-style mid-century decor. This time of year, though, everyone's hanging out on the patio. Even when the weather's not perfect, misters and heated concrete floors are designed to keep guests comfy when temperatures go up or down.

There was a Boomer and Gen-Y-friendly mix of '60s classics and indie rock on the sound system. And the restroom — something hardly worth noting at other restaurants — was all gleaming white tile and glittery flooring, with old G.I. Joes displayed on the walls and episodes of Thunderbirds (a "Supermarionation" kids' show from the '60s) screened on a TV. Joe Johnston obviously has a sense of humor.

The menu was a simple mix of burgers and fries, sandwiches and salads, pizzas and barbecued pork — crowd-pleasing stuff to begin with, but topnotch ingredients made a difference. Grilled all-beef hot dogs came on buttery grilled buns, and garlic fries, smothered in fresh garlic, herbs, and olive oil, were cooked in trans-fat-free oil. (I felt a little less guilty for eating handfuls of 'em.) Panko-breaded onion rings, and sweet potato fries with pineapple-Serrano sauce, were light and crisp.

It wasn't all fried stuff, of course. The Farm salad, made with greens from you-know-where, wasn't bad, and the coleslaw really did taste homemade. The fresh beet salad was more my style, though, mixed with chopped pecans and crumbles of blue cheese.

Blue cheese really made the barbecued chicken grilled pizza, too — a chewy pie topped with smoked chicken chunks, bacon, barbecue sauce, tomato, onion, and shreds of fresh basil. Along with grilled mushrooms and roasted red pepper, melted Gruyère made the pesto chicken sandwich seem even juicier. And the fontina burger was everything I could've hoped for with a name like that, a one-third-pound patty dressed up with roasted peppers, pecan pesto, arugula, grilled mushrooms, and loads of creamy fontina.

That burger was a big lure, but the portobello mushroom sandwich was a decent healthful alternative. It was a marinated, grilled mushroom slathered in Green Goddess dressing and fresh arugula, served on one of those soft, buttery buns. The thick ahi tuna sandwich came on one, too.

As for the pork, well, I had high expectations, since this is a sister restaurant to the infamous Joe's Real BBQ. Gratefully, it was just as good — the barbecued pulled pork was smoky and tender, and baby back ribs, covered in a slick of sauce, were thick and meaty.

After I inhaled so many garlic fries, the Hot Fudge Cream Puff was totally unnecessary. Still, it was hard to resist the menu's lone dessert, a softball-size pastry filled with vanilla ice cream and loaded with whipped cream, pecans, and maraschino cherries. It was good, but I got just as much satisfaction from the smooth, homemade strawberry milk shake.

Yeah, it'll be a drive to go to Joe's Farm Grill again, but at least I won't have to go alone. Three bites into his juicy fontina burger, my starving sweetheart told me, "Any time you want to come back to this place, I'm up for it."

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig