John Adams, the nation’s second president, is sometimes seen as a forgotten founding father. His position between the more widely-known presidencies of Washington and Jefferson has left no monument or currency bearing his likeness. In Phoenix, the street named for Adams has until recently been equally overlooked. That has changed with improvements along Adams, undertaken by the city in conjunction with the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel, which has undergone some changes of its own, including a new bar and restaurant known as Dust Cutter.
On the blocks between Central Avenue and the Phoenix Convention Center, Adams now has more shade and nicer sidewalks. The Renaissance hotel has shifted its motor lobby over to First Street, allowing Adams to become more amenable to pedestrians. The “cheese grater” architecture remains, but bland beige has been replaced with a combination of gray and white. Dust Cutter engages the street even more than the lounge that preceded it with garage doors than open in pleasant weather and prominent signs under the hotel’s canopy along Adams.
Inside, Dust Cutter’s space blends seamlessly with the rest of the hotel lobby, sometimes without a clear demarcation between the spaces. Customers seat themselves, either at the bar or any of the varied seating arrangements throughout the space. The look might be described as hipster cowboy. Railroad beams, clamps, spurs, and glass lanterns hang over wooden benches and tables. A mural of a cowboy hat and specimens of Old West memorabilia coexist with a modern linear fireplace. The result is a balance between contemporary and kitschy.
Despite a First Street address, the restaurant faces Adams, a block or two from the Washington / Central (westbound) and Jefferson /1st Avenue (eastbound) light rail stations. Bike racks are one element missing so far from the street upgrades, but a few are built into parking meters on the south side of the street. At the bar, long-time employee Rhonda can tell interested customers about the many incarnations of the Adams Hotel, from which the current Renaissance is descended, and the property’s different brand affiliations over the years.
As would be expected in a lounge, there an emphasis on bar foods, beginning with a small one-dollar snack of spicy habanero pistachios. Found as appetizers on the lunch / dinner menu and among the happy hour specials, avocado fries are thick slabs of green fruit in a light coating that adds a thin crisp layer over the tender flesh within. Avocado also appears paired with heirloom tomatoes and crumbled goat milk feta inside cups of butter lettuce. The resulting creations are called “wraps,” but the open-faced presentation is pleasingly unwrapped.
The Urban Market salad is a colorful presentation of sliced radishes, diced cucumbers, local citrus, baby tomatoes, pistachios over lettuce in a balsamic vinaigrette. The Baby Kale and Honey Crisp Apple Salad combines small cruciferous greens with sliced crisp fruit, roasted pecans, diced cucumbers, and grated cheddar, in a rosemary agave dressing. A Caesar salad enlivened with white anchovies is a satisfying interpretation of a classic. All salads can be upgraded to light meals with the addition of steak, chicken, or salmon as a protein source.
A skillet full of corn bread lies at the heartier end of the spectrum. The buttery baked good is big enough for an entire table to share. Entrees include sandwiches such as pulled pork on a potato bun with coleslaw and pickled onions. The Grilled Mary’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich, a reference to the preparation of the poultry, rather than a human named Mary, is topped with candied jalapeños, jack cheese, and chipotle aioli. Sandwich accompaniments, all sold a la carte, include crisp shoestring fries and equally thin sweet potato fries, along with a simple side salad.
The most inventive side is the creamed elote. Served in a dish rather than on the cob, kernels of roasted corn retain some firmness despite being partially pureed. With a bit of cotija cheese sprinkled on top, they’re a natural match for the trio of fish tacos or the chicken taquitos. Another entree with a Southwestern twist is the burrito bowl, a slightly upscaled version of a dish any Chipotle fan would recognize. The Arizona cheese crisps have an airy texture like lavosh crackers and come with a variety of toppings such as toy box mushrooms or figs with prosciutto.
Dust Cutter’s take on chicken and waffles adds a regional twist by incorporating the flour of ground mesquite pods, an indigenous food source found in the Sonoran Desert. More South than Southwest, the shrimp and grits features tail-on prawns swimming in a hearty broth with grape tomatoes, corn, onions, and peppers on top and creamy grain below. Desserts include a simple sorbet, straightforward sopapillas, an avocado lime cheesecake, a chocolate mousse jar, a toasted marshmallow fudge brownie, and a multi-layered Meyer lemon shortcake trifle.
The bar at the center of the room features some original cocktails, appropriately called “dust cutters,” a reference to their ability to slake thirst in an arid climate. Eight tap handles are devoted to local brews, and some draft wine is also offered with many more selections available by the glass or bottle. The president Adams Street is named for may not always receive the recognition he is due, but the block of Adams outside the Renaissance hotel continues to improve, and the rebranded and renovated Dust Cutter is a welcome part of that transformation.
100 N. First St., Phoenix AZ 85004
Washington / Central (westbound) and Jefferson / 1st Avenue (eastbound) stations