It’s a long way from Queen Creek to central Phoenix — just about 30 miles as the crow flies and over 35 miles via the most direct driving route. That distance from exurb to city is a long one, but some of Queen Creek’s culinary contributions are known throughout the metropolitan area. Queen Creek Olive Mill and Schnepf Farms are worth the trek outside the 202 loop, but one Queen Creek establishment, Rhema Soul Cuisine, has made a journey in the other direction — from a strip mall on Ellsworth Road to a new location in the Eastlake Park neighborhood.
Rhema’s relocation has brought the restaurant to a space on Jefferson Street that has been home to a number of restaurants over the years, none of which has lasted long enough to make much of an impression. The restaurant occupies one half of a modest building located just across the street from the eastbound 12th Street / Jefferson light rail station and a block south of the westbound 12th Street / Washington platform. The entrance faces Jefferson Street, and bike racks are found on 12th Street outside the apartment building diagonally across the intersection.
Rhema operates with a counter service model, and there are signs directing customers to form a line on the east side of the dining room (situated on the left if facing the counter). Overhead menus outline the choices available, a blend of barbecue and soul food, with selected items noted as “sold out” as the day progresses. Specials and daily desserts are announced at the time an order is placed. With an order given and paid for, customers can sit anywhere in the small dining room. There’s also a patio, but with no shade, it’s useful only part of the year.
The food is a mix of classic barbecue meats, traditional soul food favorites, and a few innovations unique to Rhema. The smoker turns out brisket, pulled pork, ribs, chicken, and hot links. The first two are available in a simple sandwich that allows the meat to shine with a side of garlic parmesan fries. All the other proteins are available as part of filling barbecue platters in which the meat is paired with a selection of two sides, and a newly added option introduces smaller portions with two sides and a fountain drink at a reduced price for weekday lunch.
In addition to the pork and beef sandwiches, the “Everyday Delights” side of the menu offers a variety of fried foods. Chicken thighs, a moist and flavorful alternative to the ubiquitous boneless breast, are served sliced but remain crisp on the outside and tender within. The poultry is served either with fries or paired with fluffy red velvet waffles decorated with a bit of icing. The Broritto combines the thigh meat with Caribbean red rice and black beans inside a tortilla. More chicken and some collard greens are added when the order is upgraded to a Super Broritto.
Making the transition from land to sea, Rhema offers fried swai, a species of white-fleshed fish, and fried shrimp. Both have a crisp cornmeal coating that complements the yielding seafood inside. The prawns are served half a dozen to an order and are generously sized, making this choice just as filling as the two fillets of swai. Both of the aquatic entrees come with a bit of creamy tartar sauce, although the restaurant is happy to provide one of its barbecue sauces on request, and bottles of various hot sauces are also available at the counter.
While these choices all come with fries by default, it’s possible to substitute any of the other side dishes. The sweet potato fries are straightforward and satisfying, and the potato salad and mac-and-cheese are well-executed versions of classics. The cornbread is savory. Nevertheless, it can be reinterpreted as a cornbread cake with butter cream cheese icing for a dollar more. The collards, prepared with a bit of smoked turkey instead of ham, are nicely seasoned and lack the sometimes leathery texture than can make these greens unappealing to some diners.
Two less commonly encountered side dishes on the Rhema menu are a carrot-and-craisin salad, a slightly sweet riff on a picnic standy, and Caribbean red rice. The latter is golden pilaf of seasoned grains that holds up well either as a side dish or inside a tortilla. It should be noted that while Rhema’s fries can be replaced with another side, they can also be upgraded to a full meal by ordering the Symphony Fries, a mix of sweet potato and regular fries topped with pork or beef, barbecue sauce (sweet, spicy, or a blend of both called “magic”), and assorted cheeses.
Desserts at Rhema change from one week to another. Recent selections have included a peach cobbler with supple fruit and a flaky crust, as well as slices of airy regular and strawberry cheesecakes. Rhema does not have a liquor license, something that is a challenging proposition to obtain due to the proximity of Eastlake Park’s historic churches, so drinks are limited to the likes of the soda fountain and sweet iced tea. Current hours are daytime only, although there may be some seasonal expansion of those during the cooler parts of the year.
With one foot in the world of barbecue and another in the realm of soul food, Rhema blends the best of both and adds its own distinctive flourishes along the way. The results once required a drive (no trains or buses to Queen Creek) of nearly an hour from the heart of Phoenix. Now, they’re available just east of Downtown. To be sure, the agricultural heritage of Queen Creek is still worth preserving, celebrating, and visiting — even for the diehard downtowner. Nevertheless, Rhema’s move into the city is a welcome development for Eastlake Park.
1153 E. Jefferson St. #1, Phoenix AZ 85034
12th St. / Washington or 3rd St. / Washington stations (westbound)
12th St. / Jefferson or 3rd St. / Jefferson stations (eastbound)