Over the past two years, Uptown Plaza, one of Phoenix’s oldest shopping centers, has undergone an extensive renovation. With the restoration of the property’s original brick facades and mid-century aesthetics, there has also been turnover among tenants, with the center’s owners promising a “mix of inspired local restaurants and boutiques, thoughtfully paired with national brands.” So far, brands based elsewhere like Shake Shack and Lou Manalti’s have attracted most of the publicity, but one local restaurant has moved its sole location to Uptown Plaza.
Zookz, a sandwich shop previously found a few blocks to the south, is among the tenants on the south side of Uptown Plaza, facing Camelback Road. The new location is diagonally across the street from the Central / Camelback light rail station. Uptown Plaza’s renovation did not involve the removal of any of the myriad driveways that interrupt sidewalks and bike lanes in the area, but it did result in vastly improved bike racks within the property. Look for them in front of Flower Child, one of Zookz’ new neighbors, and if those are full, more are found to the north near the courtyard.
With the move to a new space, Zookz has made several improvements. One is a better setup for outdoor dining. While the old location had some tables outside, the new Zookz has not only a patio, but also outward facing counters and big windows that are kept open during pleasant weather. Inside, there’s plenty of that newly appreciated Uptown Plaza brick and large posters that explain, in both words and pictures, the origin of Zookz and its unique sandwiches. One aspect of the restaurant that has not changed is its order-at-the-counter service model.
Zookz sandwiches are disc-shaped creations inspired by a unique device discovered by the owner’s grandmother. Two flaky, circular pieces of bread surround the fillings and are pressed together into a single saucer. The result is that bread, meats, vegetables, cheeses, and condiments essentially meld into a one handheld unit that is then cut in two prior to serving. The size is moderate, leaving enough room to enjoy one of Zookz’ side salads. A choice of potato salad, kale salad, and chickpeas in a yogurt dressing is included with each sandwich.
The sandwiches are identified by number with no discernible pattern. The largest category is devoted to lunch sandwiches such as the No. 10 with turkey, sliced apples, parmesan cheese, cranberries, almonds, and a mustard-based sauce or the No. 35 with roast beef, bacon, tomatoes, cheddar cheese, and horseradish. Beyond the eight savory choices offered each day, each Wednesday brings a new special sandwich, often one that pushes the limits of the bread’s carrying capacity with indulgent fillings such as pasta with Bolognese sauce or mac-and-cheese.
Meatless offering include the No. 45, a Mediterranean-inspired mix of mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, fresh spinach, roasted red peppers, basil leaves, and a balsamic dressing, and the No. 40, a more tropically-inspired assemblage of parmesan, shredded carrots, kale, coconut, pineapple, roasted almonds, and a sauce touted as “voodoo dressing.” There is a separate section of the menu devoted to eggy breakfast sandwiches (available during all business hours). Most are filled with poached eggs, among other ingredients, while the No. 44 features a frittata.
The Zookz bread, which seems to occupy a happy middle ground somewhere between typical sandwich slices and a croissant, is hard to resist. Nevertheless, for anyone who wants a lower carbohydrate alternative, Zookz now offers entree-sized salads. Like the sandwiches, they’re numbered. and they often combine the same ingredients and condiments found between bread. The salad most differentiated from the sandwiches is the No. 3, a Southwestern and Mediterranean mix of greens, chicken, black beans, sweet corn, sunflower seeds, and feta.
On some days, Zookz augments its regular menu of sandwiches and salads with a special soup. A recent selection was a smooth corn chowder given a little texture from bits of sausage and mild heat from chipotle. A cup of soup, the only size offered, makes a perfect side dish to accompany one of the restaurant’s salads. In addition to sweet sandwiches with fillings such as chocolate and coconut or peanut butter and bananas, Zookz also has some more traditional desserts like small fudge brownies and coconut chocolate oatmeal cookies available on most days.
In addition to the new location and menu upgrades in terms of salads and soups, Zookz has made a big step in its beverage selection with the recent approval of a liquor license. A small selection of wine and beer (mostly cans of local brews such as Papago’s Orange Blossom) exists alongside typical brunch cocktails and hybrids like the mimosa screwdriver. Since much of Zookz’ business occurs during the weekday lunch hour, there’s also a strong selection of unsweetened iced teas, generally one black, one green, and two “botanical infusions” or herbals.
With Zookz’ new patio, liquor license, and location, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the restaurant eventually add some evening hours. It also would not be surprising to see some expansion to multiple sites, or even franchising, in the future. The Zookz sandwich is distinctive enough to create a brand but also readily reproducible with the right training and equipment. If Zookz ever becomes a chain, it will fit right in with some of its neighbors at Uptown Plaza, but local dining enthusiasts can take heart that the Uptown area of Phoenix is where it all began.
100 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix AZ 85012
Central / Camelback Station