It’s fashionable for cities to have neighborhoods identified by two syllable nicknames. The classic example is SoHo (for “south of Houston Street”) in New York. Here in Phoenix, local versions such as RoRo (Roosevelt Row) and CenPho (Central Phoenix) have met with a mixture of acceptance and derision. One local full service restaurant, Noca, embraced this trend for several years with a name that reflected its location just north of Camelback Road. The original Noca has been closed since 2014, but its legacy endures in a casual sandwich shop known as Nocawich.
Nocawich started within Noca as an opportunity for diners to enjoy quick sandwiches, salads, and soups in a casual format while watching the kitchen crew prep for the more involved dinner service that would come several hours later. By the time Noca closed, the Nocawich lunch concept had already expanded to Sky Harbor Airport and the downtown Phoenix basketball arena. Those locations are run under concession arrangements, but a full-fledged Nocawich shop had to wait until late 2015, when one finally opened on College Avenue in Downtown Tempe.
The Tempe location is a ground floor retail space in the parking structure next to ASU’s Fulton Center. It’s one of many quick service restaurants on the block, but distinctive in terms of being independent and locally based among several outposts of national and regional chains. The Veterans Way / College Avenue light rail station is two blocks away within the Tempe Transportation Center. Bike racks line College Avenue, although they’re often nearly full. More bicycle parking is found in a less obvious location just inside the Fulton Center garage.
Nocawich is most easily identified by its yellow exterior and the metallic, circular art installed overhead near the entrance. Inside, there’s a menu on the wall to the left and an ordering station and tempting pastry case directly in front. After placing their orders, customers can sit outside on a comfortable patio facing College Avenue’s busy street scene or inside at a few small tables, a U-shaped counter that faces the kitchen, a long community table, or at another counter that looks outside through the garage doors that separate the restaurant’s interior from its exterior.
Nocawich is open, at least for now, only during breakfast and lunch, Monday through Saturday, so the menu naturally leans toward sandwiches, soups, and salads. That doesn’t mean the food is exactly the same as at other Nocawich locations, though. The Gwyneth, a meatless sandwich of grilled vegetables and goat cheese, is absent, although it’s offset by some offerings that are unique to College Avenue. Touches specific to Tempe include a Saturday brunch with specialties such as biscuits and gravy topped with a fried egg or potato knishes with various add-ons.
The most basic item at Nocawich is a “simple sandwich” of roast turkey or beef on focaccia with any combination of vegetables, cheese, or condiments available as enhancements. That’s the best route for those who want deli-style customization. Otherwise, it’s best to choose among the half dozen specialty sandwiches with carefully considered combinations of ingredients. Many have names based on popular culture references from decades past that may be lost on some of the young undergraduates passing by, but the quality of the food is relevant to all ages.
The Cisco Kid is a turkey sandwich accentuated with bacon, cheddar, arugula, and cranberry. The Clubber Lang, named for the antagonist in “Rocky III,” layers roast beef with provolone, greens, and a lively onion marmalade. Mr. T., who played Clubber Lang, would no doubt pity the fool who didn’t try this combination. The Meyer Lansky, named for an organized crime figure, involves pastrami and coleslaw on marble rye. It’s even better with gruyere cheese added for a dollar more. The grilled cheese sandwich enriches a classic lunch favorite with pickled green onions.
Hearty hot items include the fried chicken sandwich known as “What the Cluck,” a bit of wordplay that will need no explaining to anyone over ten. A poultry breast is breaded, cooked, and served crisp with coleslaw on a Parker House roll. A patty melt tops a ground beef patty with gruyere and caramelized onions and encloses the sandwich in marble rye before griddling everything into a warm mix that blends disparate flavors harmoniously. Both of these items go well with the fries, served in a big bowl suitable for two or more to share with spicy herb or lemon parmesan aioli.
The same big metal vessels are also used for entree-sized salads such as Chinese chicken and Tuscan kale. Although both items are ubiquitous in local restaurants, Nocawich adds fresh touches such as mint leave and pickled onions. There’s also a daily soup, sometimes butternut squash topped with walnuts or roasted red pepper, but most often a classic creamy tomato. Breakfast items, including a bagel, lox, and cream cheese combination, stand out as Tempe favorites due to high ingredient quality and simple preparations that don’t get in the way.
Desserts include fresh baked pastries such as peanut butter and jelly cookies or a miniature Nutella loaf. Drinks are nonalcoholic, but tap handles behind the counter hint that something more might be possible, especially if Nocawich eventually adds dinner hours. In many respects, the restaurant seems like a work in progress with its menu still evolving.The name Noca may reflect a now shuttered restaurant on Camelback Road, but Nocawich, with its grown-up yet fun menu standing out in contrast to neighboring chains, seems at home on College Avenue.
777 S. College Ave., Tempe AZ