“Make it nice.” That phrase got some bad press earlier this year when it appeared in a New York Times piece written by a former server in a high end restaurant. The article described a veneer of respectability used insincerely to cover anything from the trivial (the orientation of a duck so that its body cavity faces away from diners during tableside carving) to the life-threatening (a customer’s stroke in the middle of dinner service). Making it nice doesn’t have to be phony, though. In fact, one remarkably humble Phoenix restaurant displays those words prominently on its wall.
The Larder + the Delta, one of the food stalls within the DeSoto Central Market, displays the phrase “Make it Nice” right next to its ordering station. The market is located at north end of Downtown Phoenix, diagonally across the street from the Roosevelt / Central light rail station. For customers who arrive on bicycles, racks in the shape of Arizona are found on the patio facing Roosevelt Street. Inside the market, the Larder + the Delta is found in the food court and is identifiable by its tiny six-seat counter.
Although customers can enjoy their food anywhere on the market’s two levels, the half dozen stools right in front of the open kitchen are the best place to observe the work of Stephen Jones, ‘the chef behind several establishments within the DeSoto Central Market, and his staff.The restaurant is so unpretentious that at most times the same people who cook the food also take orders and deliver meals to tables. Only during peak dinner and brunch hours is a dedicated cashier on duty. Consider that staffing arrangement a feature, not a bug.
The kitchen staff are eager to answer questions about ingredients, preparation, and regional terms used to describe the food, which is predominantly influenced by the cooking of the southeastern United States. It can also be entertaining to hear the cooks talk enthusiastically about high-quality, locally sourced ingredients one minute only to hear Chef Jones say moments later that he has to go get some Cheetos. That decidedly non-artisanal, non-organic snack food is actually used as a coating for a shareable dish of pig ears.
Also among the starters, a fried chicken skin po’ boy continues the pattern of using all parts of the animal when possible. For those who find that concept a little intimidating, be reassured that the relatively tame lunch menu includes a straightforward sandwich of a fried chicken breast served with coleslaw on a potato bun. Request a little hot sauce to add a flavor boost. Likewise, a mustard-rubbed pork sandwich with a vibrant giardiniera functions as a more familiar use of the pig than the ears with Cheetos, despite that dish’s popularity among the adventurous.
Other midday favorites include a French dip sandwich of roast beef in a baguette that is then dipped in the au jus. The addition of a little horseradish cream provides a mild kick. A catfish po’ boy echoes the chicken sandwich but uses kohlrabi rather than cabbage for the slaw between the buns. A turkey sandwich includes thick slices of roasted poultry, making the equally big piece of pork belly seem superfluous.The vegetable grinder, a meatless combination of tomato, lettuce, and squash needs something else — maybe hummus or a tapenade — to hold it all together.
The dinner menu replaces sandwiches with entrees. The star of the evening is the perlou, a dish with its origins in the low country of South Carolina. Coarse, slightly crunchy grains of Carolina gold rice are cooked with an assortment of protein. Usually, that means big peel-and-eat prawns, clams and oysters in their shells, and some slices of andouille sausage. Thankfully, a separate dish is provided for shells and other detritus. A less messy seafood dish is the catfish, served, as at lunch, with a kohlrabi slaw and a house-made tartar sauce with a bit of mustard seed.
Vegetable dishes cross over between the day and night menus. Healthful brassica are plentiful here, although some preparations add a lot of fat (and flavor). Cauliflower is soaked overnight in buttermilk before being coated with flour and fried. It’s then served with bleu cheese and hot sauce in an arrangement reminiscent of chicken wings. Brussels Sprouts are cooked in fat and then tossed with shisito peppers, resulting in a dish punctuated by bursts of spice. The chow chow, a tangy salad of al dente vegetables such as broccoli and corn, is the lightest option.
Although the pig ears and perlou seems to be permanent menu items, some other selections come and go with the seasons. Favorite dishes tried in prior months but not found on the fall 2015 menu include a velvety corn soup accentuated with crisp hush puppies, a salad of honeydew melon with radishes and goat milk yogurt, sliced peaches with creamy burrata, and a simple entree of salmon with a succotash of corn and okra. As ingredients become available, it’s possible some of these will resurface, but it’s likely there are equally good new recipes waiting in the wings.
There’s a brunch menu with egg dishes and Southern favorites like shrimp and grits. Dessert is offered only at certain times as a special. Otherwise, the tea and coffee place in the market has plenty of pastry. The beverage selection includes some bottled sodas and beer, and the full bar at DeSoto lies just around the corner. The Larder + the Delta is modest in appearance and style, but ambitious and usually successful with its food. In this case, it’s refreshing that a restaurant can “make it nice” by emphasizing integrity and authenticity rather than extravagance and pretense.
915 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85004
Roosevelt / Central Station