In 1972, Motown group The Undisputed Truth told us that “Papa was a rollin’ stone / wherever he laid his hat was his home.” It took another version of the song by the Temptations later that year to make the song into a hit still remembered today. When it comes to soul food in the Christown neighborhood of Phoenix, be thankful that one Papa found his way to a strip mall across the street from Phoenix Baptist Hospital, about a third of a mile from light rail’s western terminus at 19th Avenue / Montebello, and opened Papa Joe’s Fish N Que.
The name of this modest place says it all in terms of the menu. Papa Joe’s is a place for fish and chips or barbecue sandwiches, along with classic vegetable and starch side dishes. The room where it’s all served is decorated with a little baseball and jazz memorabilia, but otherwise, this is a simple, no-frills place where customers order at the counter and are then called back to pick up their food. That being said, Papa Joe’s makes most of its dishes to order, so the restaurant is not a place to rush in and out of.
The fish part of Papa Joe’s is always fried and comes in three traditional choices: cod, whiting, and catfish. The cod is exactly what it should be in terms of generous slabs of mild tasting flaky white meat. Whiting is similar in texture but has a little more discernible seafood taste. The catfish really stands out with huge, flat pieces coated in a light breading. All varieties of fish can be ordered with either regular or spicy coatings. Go with either one on the cod or the whiting, but the catfish really cries out for the spicy preparation.
The fried fish at Papa Joe’s comes in combination platters with fried shrimp. The latter are not an afterthought, but instead crispy, satisfying snacks in their own right with a crunchier texture than the fish. A smooth tartar sauce and a tangy cocktail sauce arrive with each fish-and-chips platter, and hot sauce is at the counter. The chips part of the platters is of course french fries — thin ones in this case. They’re serviceable, but the restaurant will substitute any other side for the fries, leaving plenty of opportunity to explore the rest of the sides dishes on the menu.
Before getting to sides, it’s worthwhile to look at the other half of Papa Joe’s main dishes: the barbecue. Choices for barbecue sandwiches include pulled chicken, pulled pork, hot links, and beef brisket. They’re all tender and nicely seasoned with a tangy sauce. The only downside is that the soft buns fall apart after a few bites. That doesn’t change the flavor, but it makes the sandwiches impractical to eat without reliance on a knife and fork. For a good deal, order any of the sandwiches in a combo, which includes two sides and a drink, albeit with 50-cent refills.
Customers may come to Papa Joe’s for either fish and chips or barbecue, but the smart ones stay for the sides. Fries and onion rings are predictable choices, but more distinctive fried accompaniments are the jalapeno hush puppies, nicely textured but unexpectedly mild in taste, and the fried okra, in which the vegetable, an acquired taste for many, is yielding without being the slightest bit slimy. The coleslaw is chunky with big pieces of cabbage in a viscous sauce. The mac and cheese is creamy with a light dusting of pepper on top.
The list continues with tender baked beans balanced right between tangy and sweet flavors, traditional potato salad with a whole lot of egg and mayonnaise, and crumbly, somewhat dry corn bread in a muffin shape. Since Papa Joe’s is located across the street from a hospital, a little bit of vegetable nutrition amid all the deep-fried indulgence might not be a bad idea. In that case, it’s hard to go wrong with the turnip greens. These leaves are cooked to a supple texture and have rich flavor without any lingering bitterness.
Of course, when the meal is done, there’s still some opportunity for further indulgence with the desserts at Papa Joe’s. These are house-made takes on classics, and while all are good, the two standouts are the sweet potato pie and the peach cobbler. The former features a smooth interior that gently accedes to a flaky crust. The two meld seamlessly on the fork into a moderately sweet, rich taste. The latter is a bit more about contrast with bright, crisp, slightly tart pieces of fruit in perfect proportion to the pastry that holds it all in place.
There’s no alcohol here. In fact, drinks are limited to the soda fountain and iced tea. Hours are limited mostly to daylight hours with a closing time of seven or eight in the evening. As a result, this is not a lively night spot, but instead a solid choice for a workday lunch or early dinner with the family. The “Papa” described in the famous Motown song was itinerant; “wherever he laid his hat was his home.” With its quality blend of fish-and-chips, barbecue, and soul food sides, Papa Joe’s, on the other hand, seems like a place that just might stick around for a while.
2019 W. Bethany Home Rd., Phoenix AZ 85015