It seems an unwritten rule that some of the foods least likely to be recommended by the Surgeon General are found the closest to hospitals. In the neighborhood of Phoenix immediately northwest of the 19th Avenue / Montebello light rail station, Papa Joe’s Fish-N-Que confirms that pattern by existing directly across the street from Abrazo Central Campus, formerly known as Phoenix Baptist Hospital. The restaurant is about one third of a mile from the rail station, and a back route along Palo Verde Drive offers a slightly longer but more pleasant alternative via bicycle.
The name of this modest place says it all in terms of the menu. Papa Joe’s is a place for fish and chips or barbecue sandwiches, along with classic vegetable and starch side dishes. The room where it’s all served is decorated with a little baseball and jazz memorabilia, but otherwise, this is a simple, no-frills place where customers order at the counter and are then called back to pick up their food. There’s a small patio facing Bethany Home Road, but it doesn’t see much use due to the volume of traffic in front. Its fence, however, functions as the only viable bike rack in the area.
The fish part of Papa Joe’s is always fried and comes in three species: cod, whiting, and catfish. The last one is almost always the best choice. While the cod and whiting can be inconsistent — occasionally oily or mushy — the catfish stands out with huge, flat pieces coated in a light breading. The result is flaky, tender, and moist without excessive grease every time. All three varieties of fish can be ordered with either a regular or a spicy coating. Go with either one on the outside of the cod or the whiting, but the mild catfish really cries out for contrast with the spicy exterior.
The fried fish at Papa Joe’s comes in combination platters based on one, two, or three pieces, all of which are paired with a corresponding quantity of fried shrimp. The crisp, butterflied prawns are not an afterthought, but instead satisfying snacks in their own right with a crunchier texture than the fish. In fact, one option is simply to order a meal of six or eight fried crustaceans on a platter of their own. For those who’d rather not deal with forks, knives, or even shrimp tails, there are catfish nuggets available, as well as children’s menu with the nearly inevitable option of chicken nuggets.
The chips part of the platters is thinly cut french fries. The restaurant will substitute any other side for the fries upon request, leaving plenty of opportunity to explore the rest of the menu. For another familiar choice, the onion rings are a solid choice. Beyond fried potatoes and onions, some more distinctive accompaniments are the jalapeno hush puppies, nicely textured but unexpectedly mild in spice level; sweet potato tots, a relatively new addition to the menu; and the fried okra, in which the vegetable, an acquired taste for many, is yielding but not at all slimy.
The coleslaw is chunky with big pieces of cabbage in a thick dressing. The mac and cheese is creamy with a light dusting of pepper on top.Tender baked beans balance tangy and sweet flavors, traditional potato salad is loaded with a whole lot of egg and mayonnaise, and crumbly cornbread comes in a muffin shape. Since Papa Joe’s is located across the street from Abrazo, a little bit of vegetable nutrition amid all the deep-fried indulgence might not be a bad idea. The collard greens, cooked until tender and no longer bitter, are just right for that purpose.
Of course, there’s another side to Papa Joe’s main dishes: the “Que.” Choices for barbecue sandwiches include pulled chicken, pulled pork, hot links, and beef brisket. They’re all tender and nicely seasoned with a tangy sauce. The only downside is that the soft buns fall apart after a few bites. That doesn’t change the flavor, but it makes the sandwiches impractical to eat without some reliance on a knife and fork. Hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and turkey burgers are also served. For a good deal, order any of the sandwiches in a combo, which includes two sides and a drink.
The ribs come in two, three, or four-piece combination platters with sides. The hot wings come in a basket of four pieces with a side dish. Naturally, they’re both a messy delight and need to be eaten by hand. Papa Joe’s prepares catering orders for pick up, and many of the foods, including the fried fish, chicken tenders, and the spicy chicken wings, are available in large quantity family packs to go. A smooth tartar sauce and a tangy cocktail sauce arrive with each fish-and-chips platter, and hot sauce and other condiments are available at the counter.
When the meal is done, there’s still some opportunity for further indulgence with the desserts at Papa Joe’s. These are house-made takes on classics such as cheesecake, pecan pie, sweet potato pie, and peach cobbler. The cheesecake is straightforward, simple, and supple.The pies have a smooth interior that gently accedes to a flaky crust. The two meld seamlessly on the fork into a moderately sweet, rich taste. The cobbler is more about contrast with bright, crisp, slightly tart pieces of fruit in perfect proportion to the buttery pastry that holds it all in place.
There’s no alcohol here. In fact, drinks are limited to the soda fountain, lemonade, and iced tea. Hours are constrained mostly to daylight with a closing time of seven or eight in the evening. As a result, this is not a lively night spot, but instead a solid choice for a workday lunch or early dinner with the family. The hospital across the street is there to heal the body, and any nutritional advice given there should be taken seriously. Nevertheless, an occasional indulgence at Papa Joe’s is probably part of a prescription for good eating along the 19th Avenue corridor.
2019 W. Bethany Home Rd., Phoenix AZ 85015
19th Avenue / Montebello Station