Anyone visiting the Arizona Center recently may have noticed some renovations going on at the development. Some of the changes are significant changes to the complex’s look, even if they fail to completely remediate the center’s major shortcoming: its inward focus and lack of street presence. Still, new owners are investing in the property and trying to give it a viable future with a fresh look and promises to add a hotel and housing. Amid all this change, one of the few survivors of the original tenant mix, Canyon Cafe, endures in one of the Arizona Center’s prime spots.
Canyon Cafe, formerly known as Sam’s Cafe, is the only restaurant other than Hooter’s that has been around since opening day in 1989. It’s the Phoenix outpost of a small chain with only two other current locations: San Antonio and St. Louis. At the Arizona Center, Canyon Cafe is just a few blocks from both the Van Buren light rail stations and the Third Street stations. Look for the restaurant on the southeastern side of the building closest to the complex’s hidden gardens and water features. Bike racks are found along Third Street on the center’s western edge.
The restaurant underwent changes to both its interior and its patio a few years ago, and while the result is not a radical departure from the original Sam’s Cafe look, it is a refreshing update to a place that had maintained the same Southwestern theme for a quarter century. The dining room stretches far back from the host station, beginning as a sort of wide corridor before opening to a larger space in the back. A large patio provides a space for shaded outdoor dining with a view of the garden and water feature that have always been among the Arizona Center’s best assets.
Most of the menu is familiar Southwestern-lite classics, flavorful but not fiery, that have endured for over two decades with just a few tweaks along the way. All meals begins with a bowl of mixed chips — some traditional corn chips, some sweet potato chips, and a few creations that look almost like fried wontons — along with a bowl of mild roasted salsa. Tableside guacamole has become a cliche, but Canyon Cafe’s servers make an effective version with the customer’s choice of creamy or chunky texture and add-ins such a garlic, onion, cilantro, tomatoes, and jalapenos.
Soups and salad at Canyon Cafe have remained unchanged over the years. The pueblo house salad is a straightforward plate of mesclun greens with julienne carrots, pickled onion, and tomato wedges. The Southwest Caesar salad is given a regional touch through the use of tortilla strips rather than croutons to add a bit of crunch. Tortilla soup is thick, chunky, and satisfying. The poblano chicken chowder is even more substantial with a mild, creamy base punctuated with chunks of poultry, carrots, and potatoes. Soup and salad can be combined as a light entree.
In terms of entrees, the Canyon Cafe menu is divided into categories such as “Mex-Mex” (tacos, enchiladas, and quesadillas) and “Canyon Mex” (dishes that incorporate a variety of influences from Mexico to Louisiana and most places in between). The spinach and portabello quesadilla, a long-running menu favorite, marries the umami flavor of big sliced mushrooms with plenty of greenery. Pancho’s Enchiladas, another popular item, features roasted chicken inside two tortillas; a creamy, a slightly peppered sauce on top; a rice pilaf below; and a small salad on the side.
Tacos come in four variants: blackened fish, grilled chicken, crispy shrimp, and grilled vegetables. The first involves hard shells; the other choices are prepared with soft tortillas. Each involves two tacos and sides of black beans and seasoned rice. Priced between $10 and $15, these platters are a welcome alternative to the recent trend of pricey “street tacos” offered only on an a la carte basis at not-so-street prices. Beyond these enduring crowd pleasers, look for changing Mexican-inspired specials such as pork enchiladas, carnitas rellenos, and chicken flautas.
The pecan-crusted crab cake, the fire-grilled tuna, and the combination plate of blackened tilapia and crawfish all demonstrate competence with seafood. On land, the bison meatloaf is two slices of a dish that is first baked then grilled, acquiring a bit of smoky flavor along the way. A meatless favorite is the fire-grilled vegetable pasta, which combines soy sauce with perennial Southwestern ingredients such as black beans. A few economically priced lunch items include a creamy pasta with grilled chicken, artichoke hearts, sauteed spinach, and diced tomatoes.
For dessert, many diners simply accept the small, complimentary white chocolate tamales offered at the end of the meal. Those who can find room, however, may want to explore desserts such as a banana burrito or cheesecake. The Canyon Cafe’s bar continues its tradition of offering numerous variants on the margarita, ranging from a traditional “top shelf” model to fruity concoctions with mango or raspberry. There’s also draft beer, wine, sangria, mojitos, and other cocktails. The non-alcoholic red rock lemonade is infused with strawberry syrup.
After operating for more than 25 years with essentially the same look, both the Arizona Center and Canyon Cafe were due for an update. Canyon Cafe took care of that a few years ago by refreshing its decor and making minor adjustments to its menu while maintaining most customer favorites and retaining its urban garden ambiance. It remains to be seen which new businesses a renovated Arizona Center will attract, but as one of the few remaining original tenants, Canyon Cafe plays to its strengths while the surrounding retail and office complex is renovated around it.
455 N. 3rd St., Phoenix AZ 85004
Van Buren / Central or Washington / 3rd Street stations (westbound)
Van Buren / 1st Avenue or Jefferson / 3rd Street stations (eastbound)