Just east of Downtown, between Heritage Square and Eastlake Park, lies a changing area of Phoenix. Part of the Azteca Plaza shopping center has been demolished, and several new apartment buildings are under construction or recently completed. Amid these developments, there are some aspects of the neighborhood that remain much the same as they have been for decades. Two historic churches, Immaculate Heart and Tanner Chapel AME, are landmarks in the area, and in between them lies Mrs. White’s Golden Rule Cafe, a half-century-old restaurant.
Mrs. White’s modest building, currently painted an orange-ish shade reminiscent of the mac-and-cheese served inside, is found on Jefferson Street, approximately halfway between the light rail stations at Third Street and 12th Street. Because of the one-way streets here, eastbound passengers use the platforms on Jefferson, and westbound trains stop at platforms one block to the north on Washington. Grid Bike Share is found nearby at 11th Street and Washington. Mrs. White’s has no bike rack, but a parking lot fence on Eighth Street can serve as a place to lock up.
There is an actual Mrs. White who founded the restaurant back in 1964. Elizabeth White’s establishment, serving hearty soul food reflecting African American food traditions, has become a multigenerational Phoenix institution. In fact, her grandson Larry is the “Lolo” behind the Lolo’s Chicken and Waffles chain. While Lolo’s has grown beyond its original south Phoenix base, Mrs. White’s remains only minimally changed. Customers still pay their bills on the honor system by telling the cashier what they ordered, explaining the “golden rule” in the restaurant’s name.
Mrs. White’s has a small counter to the right of the entrance. The eight seats there may be the best option for solo diners. To the left lie two dining rooms; their walls are covered with assorted pieces of local memorabilia, photographs of celebrity guests who have visited over the years, and various notes written in marker by diners. The furniture is simple, and the atmosphere no-frills yet friendly. Customers seat themselves and wait for staff to come by with printed menus. The chalkboard menu up front by the counter, however, is where the daily specials are listed.
Most customers order one of Mrs. White’s full meals. With the exception of a small premium for oxtails, they’re all priced the same, currently $13. The most popular choice appears to be fried chicken, served typically as one breast, one thigh, and one drumstick with an option to upgrade to all white meat for an additional charge. It’s crisp and flavorful on the outside, with moist meat underneath. To add another layer of flavor, order the chicken smothered, meaning covered in a brown gravy. Of course, then it’s no longer a hand food, and utensils become more important.
Like the chicken, pork chops are fried and served either unadorned or smothered. The catfish is served just one way — with two flaky, tender pieces fried in a light coating. For a beef entree, the chicken fried steak is a big patty of ground beef coated in batter, fried, and served with gravy. The only meat entree not fried is the oxtails, which are boiled, as well as occasional specials such as neck bones, hamburger steak, or meatloaf. The meatless entree is a colorful, colossal vegetable plate which assembles most of Mrs. White’s most popular side dishes on a single platter.
The side dishes are Mrs. White’s, like those at most soul food restaurants, are not mere afterthoughts. Instead, they’re hearty accompaniments with their own distinctive flavors and textures. Red beans and black-eyed peas, both simply seasoned, are the two choices of legumes. Cruciferous vegetables include mixed greens, mostly collards, with just a bit of tartness and cabbage, boiled until yielding. Sweet potatoes are simple and straightforward. Combination sides include green beans with potatoes and rice topped with the brown gravy used for “smothering.”
Macaroni salad, coleslaw, potato salad, and macaroni-and-cheese are the sides to choose for generous amounts of eggs or dairy alongside starches and vegetables. Apple sauce is the sweetest choice and recommended as an a companion to the pork chops. In fact, the menu suggests sides appropriate for each entree, although customers are free to order any two they like, including occasional specials like fried okra. One other side dish that comes automatically with each meal is a plate of Mrs. White’s cornbread, which is moist and not excessively sweet.
For anyone not wanting to spend $13 on an entree, Mrs. White’s offers sandwiches for about half that price. Be advised, however, that a sandwich here means two pieces of whole wheat bread with the chosen meat and one side from a limited array of three favorites: applesauce, coleslaw, or mac salad. The result is an open-faced, minimalistic sandwich to be assembled and accessorized with condiments by the person eating it. Desserts are Mrs. White’s vary each day. The pies are good, but the peach cobbler, soupy and supple, is usually the best choice of all.
Mrs. White’s beverage selection is not extensive. There’s no liquor license and no soda fountain. Instead, there are the classic drinks for this type of food: sweetened iced tea, lemonade, and red fruit punch. The restaurant is open every day for lunch and early dinner with the biggest crowds arriving at midday, especially on Sundays after church services. A lot has changed since Mrs. White’s first opened in 1964, but like the nearby churches, Mrs. White’s is all about traditions, traditions that can appeal to believers or non-believers of just about any persuasion.
808 E. Jefferson St., Phoenix AZ 85004
12th St. / Washington or 3rd St. / Washington stations (westbound)
12th St. / Jefferson or 3rd St. / Jefferson stations (eastbound)