Almost every college campus has a certain array of restaurant types within a few blocks’ walk. There’s always a cheap burger-and-brew place, a wide variety of international restaurants, and at least one place with an alternative vibe and a mainly vegetarian menu. What missing from the list? There’s also usually a restaurant that caters more to the faculty than the students — unless of course it’s a place to for students to go with their parents when they’re visiting, and, more importantly, paying. Arizona State University’s version of this restaurant has long been the House of Tricks.
|Mediterranean tapas platter|
The House of Tricks has been around for more than a quarter century in a cottage on Seventh Street just north of the ASU Tempe campus and three blocks from the Veterans Way / College Avenue light rail station. A second historic home next door was incorporated into the restaurant in 1994, expanding the restaurant’s interior seating; however, on any given day — at least during the mild weather that predominates during most of the academic year — the majority of customers are likely to be found sitting outside on the expansive patio that faces Seventh Street.
|exterior from 7th Street|
House of Tricks is one of those rare restaurants at which the outdoor seating probably exceeds the number of chairs inside. That’s possible because the restaurant’s patio is one of the nicest in the metro area. Abundant mature trees provide plenty of shade in the summer, mist cooling takes the edge off the summer heat at the outdoor bar, and fireplaces add a touch of warmth during those not-so-bone-chilling Phoenix winters. A bike rack is found in back and reached via an alley near the Islamic Community Center; however, many bicyclists just lock up against the fence in front.
|bike rack in back|
The menu at Tricks is hard to pin down in terms of any specific national or cultural origin. It’s a little bit Mediterranean, a little bit French, a little Southwestern, and a little bit of everything else. Although the restaurant takes it name from its owners Bob and Robin Trick, its kitchen is run by Executive Chef Kelly Fletcher, who has been there for a decade, a long tenure to be admired in his profession. Fletcher may profess unbridled enthusiasm for foie gras via his Twitter account, but the continuously changing menus he creates are testaments to diversity, just as one would expect near a university.
Overall, there’s a sense of balance in the menu with a quiche of the day, a stereotypically feminine dish if we are to believe the popular book from 1982, matched against hearty red meat dishes such as braised lamb shank. Of course, there’s a whole range of options in between with emphasis on fish, poultry, and vegetarian dishes. To understand the range here, contrast the foie gras taco with caramelized pineapple and shallots showcased by Fletcher at Devoured 2013 with the Mongolian BBQ Shrimp with lemongrass grits and kimchi featured at the same festival in 2012.
Among the starters on the lunch menu, the Mediterranean tapas platter stands out for its flavor and variety. This dish is a menu constant but changes continuously. The current assortment comprises mild, plump green olives; a bite of feta; four small falafel balls with tzatsiki; two hand-made pitas; and chunky hummus. It’s an appetizer suitable for sharing, but it also makes an effective meatless entree for one. A recent daily special has been arancini, three rice balls with a crisp exterior and a yielding core of soft cheese, topped with a zesty puttanesca-style sauce and paired a green salad.
|chicken and dumplings|
At dinner, the food gets a little heartier, with first plates incorporating burrata, foie gras, scallops, and other more substantial ingredients. A kale salad uses curly leaves instead of lacinato greens, but turned out unexpectedly tender and judiciously accented by walnuts. A recent warm seafood salad featured big prawns and generous pieces of salmon in white sauce over greens. A riff on a traditional entree is chicken and dumplings, a half bird with delicate dumplings and smooth gravy. A vegetarian dish of Yukon gold gnocchi features fresh tomatoes, beets, and earthy king mushrooms.
|chocolate pecan tart|
Desserts at House of Ticks are a mix of house-made treats and indulgences from local pastry chef Tracy Dempsey. Chef Fletcher’s edamame cheese cake, a recent special, was unconventional but striking in its marriage of flavors. The ground soybean pods mixed with the cheese were detectable only by their slight nuttiness. The more remarkable taste came from the addition of wasabi to the chocolate sauce on top with the result being a slight accentuation of cacao’s natural bitterness. A chocolate pecan tart and a peanut cheesecake are more straightforward but no less satisfying.
The House of Tricks matches its eclectic menu with a diverse beverage selection. The wine list is global, and there are nearly three dozen selections by the glass with $6 bargains for those willing and able to enjoy wine at lunch. The beer selection is also impressive with local brews coexisting with some strong, esoteric farmhouse and pale ales. Craft cocktails vary with the season and include drinks such as a “fig julep,” a play on the classic mint julep made with fig-infused bourbon. The fig taste blends nicely with the caramel notes of bourbon and freshly muddled mint leaves.
Although House of Tricks has just celebrated its 25th anniversary, the average age of an ASU undergraduate is just 22. Combine that with an average age in the 30s for grad students, and overall mean is probably about 25. In other words, the typical student was in diapers when House of Tricks was founded. With the restaurant being older than much of the surrounding population, it plays a vital role in the urban fabric and community surrounding ASU Tempe. If House of Tricks lasts another quarter century, maybe even the class of 2038 can enjoy eating there.
Update February 27, 2014: The executive chef mentioned in this review has left House of Tricks.
114 E 7th St., Tempe AZ 85281