Bison Witches

A beer and a sandwich. It’s a simple combination of pleasures that has persisted despite low-carb and gluten-free diets. It takes a special type of place to make the combination work. Most delis don’t serve alcohol, most bars that serve food focus on burgers and fried items, and many pubs are now adopting ambitious menus with all sorts of food available. The beer-and-sandwich niche in Downtown Tempe is filled by Bison Witches, one of four sites in a mini-chain also located in Tucson; Norman, Oklahoma; and Lincoln, Nebraska.

front entrance from Sixth Street

What do those three communities have in common with Tempe? They’re all home to major state university campuses. That appears to be no coincidence judging from the decor of the local restaurant, which is located on the cul-de-sac of Sixth Street, just four short, walkable blocks from the Mill Avenue / Third street light rail station. Outside, there’s a large, patio with plenty of shade and mist cooling. Inside, there’s a sort of patina about the place that suggests it’s older than it really is.

patio and rear entrance

The casual, collegiate feel comes from a combination of ASU sports memorabilia and promotional art devoted to beer. That doesn’t mean schwag for Budweiser and Coors is everywhere, though. Bison Witches devotes most of its energy to craft brews. Each day features different beer specials. Tuesdays, draft beer from breweries such as O’Dell is three dollars a pint. On Wednesday, the same bargain applies to all bottled craft and import brews. In the evening, there are sometimes tastings devoted to specific beermakers like Rogue.

cold beer on the patio

With beer in hand (or a fountain drink or juice if alcohol is not appropriate), the next step is to browse the lengthy sandwich menu. If looking for a starter while doing that, the hummus, an airy, tangy version of the classic dip, is a good choice. It comes with bell peppers strips and plenty of pita bread, along with superfluous chips.  All sandwiches are toasted on a choice of white, whole wheat, or rye, although not with panino-style grill marks. The bread’s crust is defined enough to give the sandwich structure while its absorbent interior soaks up flavors.

hummus

Sandwich choices range from simple offerings like smoked turkey, with good meat and bread, even if the honey mustard seems more honey than mustard. The BW Philly features sliced beef paired with melted Swiss cheese and grilled peppers and onions. The Jayhawk, another presumed linkage of college sports, is filled with chicken breast, melted provolone, lettuce, and more of the sweet honey mustard. The Hawaiian chicken sandwich is similar but with pineapple replacing the iceberg and barbeque sauce as the condiment

Jayhawk with cream of broccoli

There’s sometimes a special sandwich of the month. In April, it was the BW Hula, smoked turkey with roasted red peppers, lettuce, melted cheddar, and sweet chili sauce sauce.  Because the spreads used between the bread tend to be sweet, these sandwiches go best with pale ales and other beers with a bit of bitterness. Fortunately, Bison Witches has plenty of those. As if they’re not filling enough already, all sandwiches also come with a small bag of Poore Brothers potato chips, either regular of jalapeno.

BW Philly with Wisconsin cheese soup

The sandwiches here are indeed huge. Even the half sandwiches are big. Probably the smartest way to order is a combination of a half sandwich with one of five soups offered each day. Cream of potato contains nice al dente chunks, smaller bits of carrot, and a little bacon. Clam chowder is smooth and flavorful with celery, potato, and minced bivalves. The broccoli soup is predictably cheesy, creamy, and studded with cut up florets and stems of cruciferous greenery. Wisconsin cheese soup is essentially melted sharp cheddar in a bread bowl.

PB&J with chili

Bread bowls are the norm for all soups here. That can mean some redundancy with the sandwich bread, but most bread bowls are not meant to be eaten in their entirety. Instead, scoop out some of the edible vessel’s interior in order to benefit from every last bit of flavor absorbed from the broth. The fifth soup is chili, a slightly spicy version made with ground beef and no beans. It goes well with classic peanut butter and jelly from the sandwich menu. The sweetness of the fruit, the nuttiness of the spread, and the heat from the chili balance nicely.

BW Hula and clam chowder

If the sandwich and bread bowl emphasis is a carbohydrate overload, an alternative might be the chicken tortilla salad. It’s a big rectangular platter full of cubes of peppered chicken breast with shredded cheese, a ton of iceberg lettuce, and a big layer of chips beneath. The accompanying salsa, which can be replaced or augmented with ranch or sour cream, is quite mild. Ask for some cholula or tabasco to spice it up. A side salad is brighter and more vibrant with a lot mesclun and a handful of alfalfa sprouts.

chicken tortilla salad

There’s no dessert here, although perhaps a fruity beer like Lost Coast’s tangerine wheat brew might finish the meal with a slightly sweet flourish. Otherwise, walk the short distance to one of the half dozen places for ice cream, frozen yogurt, or paletas on Mill Avenue. Bison Witches isn’t claiming to be anything more than a friendly place for a beer and a sandwich, but it’s effective in that mission. Even if your travels won’t be taking you to Tucson, Norman, or Ohama, the restaurant is a viable option right in the heart of Tempe.

21 E. Sixth St., #146, Tempe AZ 85281
(480) 894-9104
http://www.bisonwitches.com

Bison Witches Bar & Deli on Urbanspoon

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