In a city named for a mythical bird reborn from its own ashes, a story of a failed enterprise being transformed into something else more successful is always an enticing story. That’s the recent experience at the Downtown Phoenix Public Market. The outdoor market has operated continuously since 2005 on a lot along Central Avenue, just two blocks south of the Roosevelt / Central light rail station. A two-year experiment with an adjunct indoor store and cafe, however, was not sustainable and came to an abrupt end in 2012. Now in 2013, the building is back in use as a restaurant.
The replacement is the Phoenix Public Market Cafe, although it’s sometimes also identified as the Cafe at the Phoenix Public Market. As with its predecessor, there is some uncertainty about exactly what to call it. Since it’s a more casual offshoot of the popular St. Francis restaurant in Uptown Phoenix, maybe we should just call it “St. Frank.” No matter what the name, the space has been transformed with natural wood furnishings; a bar that opens up to the shaded, mist-cooled patio; and new windows on the west side of the building facing the outdoor market and Central Avenue.
The added windows came at the expense of a mural on the outside of the building, creating one of the few moments of controversy during the building’s transformation. Thankfully, the array of bike racks on Pierce Street were retained, and they’re heavily used even during the summer heat. Inside, there’s a small selection of merchandise, but it’s clear this business is mostly a restaurant. Its relationship to the outdoor market lies in a farm-to-table menu where classic, all-season dishes such as rotisserie chicken coexist with salads and soups that incorporate the latest local produce.
The cafe offers a breakfast menu overlapping with a combined lunch and dinner menu during midday, followed by a shift to just the lunch and dinner menu in the late afternoon.The menu is displayed both on printed sheets and on reader boards over the counter where orders are placed. Then, in “fast casual” style, customers are given a numbered placard to use at their chosen tables while they await their food. The bar, with one counter on the inside and another counter out on the patio, is the one portion of the cafe that operates on a full service model for both food and drinks.
Breakfast options begin with straightforward combinations such as the Rooster Booster, which features two eggs any style, bacon, and toast with fruit preserves, all of them simple foods but enlivened with fresh, high-quality ingredients from local sources when feasible. The chickpea pancakes sound more exotic than they really are. Some flour made from garbanzo beans is blended with all-purpose wheat flour, but the results are an exemplary version of traditional flapjacks. Likewise, the steel cut oats risotto is a clever name for something not far removed from good old-fashioned oatmeal.
Among the morning beverages, there’s not only fresh-squeezed orange juice, but also bolder juice combinations with superhero names. The Flash is an orange-colored smoothie with puréed bell peppers, beets, carrots, orange, lemon, and ginger augmented by a mild but steady kick from chiles. Its green companion, the Hulk, has some kale and other greenery, but the most distinctive flavor is cucumber. For later in the day, there’s a full bar that offers cocktails, wines by the glass, craft beers on tap, and a sangria that is pleasantly balanced between sweet and tart elements.
As morning heads toward noon, the rotisserie spit starts turning, cooking chickens that are served either whole or by the half. The poultry is moist and tender with a bit of charred skin on the outside. The half bird comes with one side, and the whole one adds a second choice. Among them, the baked sweet potato with chile lime butter has nice bit of heat to balance the vegetable’s intrinsic sweetness. The fries are thick with skin on the ends. Lighter preparations such as steamed broccoli with lemon and olive oil are joined by a daily market vegetable.
The salmon is a generous slice of fish with a bit of crispness on the outside but flaky and yielding within. Like the chicken, it’s paired with a choice of sides. In this case, the smooth, creamy garlic mashed potatoes are a good match. Many of the other entrees are of the meal-in-a-bowl variety. The pork chile verde pot pie takes a classic pastry crust and fills it with an assertive Southwestern stew. Soups, which come in big bowls making them suitable as light entrees, include black bean, coconut curry lentil with chunks of butternut squash, and a daily offering such as corn chowder or gazpacho.
Salads are served in the same capacious bowls, making them viable as shared starters or small main dishes. The Chino is built upon noodles tossed with pieces of rotisserie chicken, shredded cabbage, and a thick dressing. It all comes together as sort of an Asian slaw with meat, and a few crunchy noodles on top add some variety. The Mo Salad is a vegetarian choice with abundant spinach topped with pickled red onion, goat cheese, sprouts, and sunflower seeds. The niche for a hot meatless entree is filled by the rice bowl, similar to the one served uptown at St. Francis.
Most of the desserts are displayed in a case by the counter. The baked goods include cookies so big they could almost serve as replacement wheels on some of the bicycles parked outside, albeit with a much softer texture; big brownies with walnuts; carrot cake whoopie pies filled with cream cheese; and vegan muffins made from quinoa. Despite some social media confusion about its fate, the Downtown Phoenix Public Market never went away. Now, the market’s indoor companion is back with what appears to be a better business model, living up to the Phoenix in its name.
May 23, 2015 Update: The restaurant now operates under a full-service model during dinner hours.
14 E. Pierce St., Phoenix AZ 85004
Roosevelt / Central Station