Monroe’s Hot Chicken

When summer temperatures soar in Phoenix, there are always complaints about the urban heat island effect. The closer to the center of the city one gets, the more it seems the heat lingers after dark. Wherever there are high temperatures, there is often an appreciation for spicy food, so it’s no surprise that the Nashville hot chicken trend has caught on here. Monroe’s Hot Chicken, located at just about the most urban local address imaginable, the Luhrs City Center on Jefferson Street, creates its own heat island right in the heart of downtown Phoenix.

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chicken sandwich and collard greens

Monroe’s is near the eastbound Jefferson / First Avenue light rail station and a block-and-a-half from the westbound Washington / Central platform. Bike racks are scarcer than they should be here, but some are found just around the corner outside Bitter & Twisted on Central Avenue. There’s no outdoor dining, but a long counter along the front window provides a view of passing trains and city life. The rest of the dining room has a view of Monroe’s distinctive decor, celebrity mugshots. Perhaps their presence has something to do with the proximity of local courthouses.

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waffle sandwich

Customers order at the counter using an automated system of touch screens. Strangely, the terminals are not equipped for contactless payment technologies such as Apple Pay and its Android counterparts, making it necessary to fumble to find just the right way to insert a credit card into a finicky machine. It’s a frustrating instance of one step forward, two steps back. The system does have the advantage, however, of allowing the customer to not only set a specific spice level, but also to note any modifications they’d like to make to the standard menu items.

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chicken tenders, fries, and slaw

Monroe’s is an offshoot of Lolo’s Chicken & Waffles, but it’s not simply a spicy version of its bigger sibling. Instead, it serves a distinct style of chicken that is not quite as crisp as Lolo’s but infused with cayenne pepper flavor. The spice level can be designated at six levels, ranging from no heat at all to an incendiary “What Da Cluck” maximum. The actual intensity of the heat is largely contextual, though. In other words, it all depends on what entree the chicken is part of and what condiments and accompaniments may be present to exert a cooling effect.

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salad with chicken and mac-and-cheese

The chicken sandwich tops a fried breast with sweet pickles and slaw, slightly tempering the heat of the poultry coating. The waffle sandwich is a study in contrasts with the sweet breakfast treat, further mellowed by butter and powdered sugar, offering a relief from the chicken’s spice. In the salad, the greens below and the dressing above mitigate the heat. Surprisingly, it’s the chicken tenders, something that might be thought of as a child’s meal, that offers the most intense blast due to its greater surface area and lack of countervailing ingredients.

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branded bottled water

With the exception of the tenders, which include fries, all sides are offered on an a la carte basis. The fries are crinkle cut and generously seasoned, making them a fine accompaniment to any of the mains. The potato salad is creamy and given a bit of texture by the skin of the red potatoes used in its preparation. The mac-and-cheese is topped with crumbled cornbread, providing a bit of sweetness and crunch in the same bite. The slaw is more of the same cabbage used to accessorize the sandwiches, and the collards offer an appreciated bit of green.

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float

Monroe’s is a slick operation with plenty of branded merchandise to offer, including its own bottled water. Don’t worry about paying excessively for hydration, though. There’s free water available to those dining in; the branded bottles are more appropriate for the restaurant’s considerable volume of takeout business. Otherwise, Monroe’s offers not the usual fountain soda brands, but instead a line of organic sodas in assorted flavors. The restaurant advertises a root beer float among its desserts, but any of the soda flavors can be used to prepare it.

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moon pie

Monroe’s signature dessert offering is a moon pie, derived from the Tennessee treat that involves a layer of marshmallow encased in graham crackers and a chocolate coating. Think of it as a s’more without the campfire and big enough to feed an entire table. With its extensive merchandise and mechanized operations, Monroe’s feels like it might be destined to follow its relative Lolo’s into multiple locations and franchising. Even if it does, the original location in the Luhrs City Center is likely to remain an urban heat island of the best kind imaginable.

45 W. Jefferson St., Phoenix AZ 85003
Washington / Central (westbound) and Jefferson / 1st Ave. (eastbound) stations
(602) 872-7100
http://monroeshotchicken.com

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