The word “deuce” can have so many meanings. Long before Doug Ducey became Treasurer and then Governor of Arizona, the Deuce was an old name for the south end of Phoenix’s downtown. It was often viewed as a notorious place where speakeasies coexisted with warehouses situated along the freight railroad tracks. In fact, the word “produce,” which describes much of what was stored in those warehouses, can be shortened to “duce,” suggesting that proximity to Second Street isn’t the only possible explanation for the name.
The Duce, a bar, restaurant, club, and event space in the Warehouse District, reflects those multiple identities and meanings with its slogan: “Where pretty meets gritty, where prohibition meets produce.” The establishment inhabits a 1928 warehouse building with brick and corrugated metal walls. It has endured even as the rest of the surrounding block has been turned into surface parking, and for the past decade, the Duce has served as a harbinger of the ongoing rediscovery and renovation of the Warehouse District just south of the downtown core.
The Duce can be reached via a half-mile walk from the current light stations at Central / Washington (westbound) and Jefferson / First Avenue (eastbound); however, once the South Central extension is complete, the Duce will be across the street from two newer platforms at Lincoln Street. Despite a Central Avenue address, the Duce does not engage the street. Instead, its entrance is found via two alleys bisecting the block bounded by Lincoln, Central, Buchanan, and First Street. Look for the welcome sign along the alley just north of Lincoln.
The Duce’s layout can be confusing at first. If visiting during the day, enter via the patio. Weekday lunch is served only in that outdoor space, along with an adjoining indoor room. The much larger space within the building is open only at night, on weekends, and during special events. In there, guests will find a boxing ring, games, and even the bleachers from the old St. Mary’s high school campus. There are multiple bars where a drink can be obtained. Food is generally ordered from a counter in front of the silver trailer that serves as the kitchen.
The Duce’s menu is centered around comfort foods, particularly those that can be served in a jar. Metal trays and glass jars seem to be the predominant ways of presenting food here. It’s an approach that may seem a bit gimmicky at first, but it works well with a menu that relies heavily on baked items. That means starters like muffins with macaroni and cheese incorporated into them or miniature skillets filled with mac-and-cheese and pizza sauce. It can also involve chips with dips of baked cheeses, caramelized onions, or a combination of artichoke and asparagus.
The jar format continues with salads in both pint and quart size. The eponymous Duce salad is built on a base of arugula and romaine topped with pine nuts, hearts of palm, a parmesan wafer, and balsamic vinaigrette. Strawberry pecan salad and the Berry Ducey salad both combine fruit, nuts, and greens in bountiful mixes that seem far more abundant in both quantity and taste than the compact glass vessel would suggest. All salads can be augmented with chicken sausage to create a more filling meal. Other vegetables in jars include roasted corn and mashed potatoes.
Signature entrees include chicken pot pie served in, no surprise, a jar. It’s a creamy concoction full of corn, carrots, and poultry with flaky pastry on top. Grandma Rose’s pasta is crammed with noodles in a meat sauce made with sausage and adorned with shaved parmesan and whole basil leaves on top. The chili is mild but flavorful with ground meat, bell peppers, and kidney beans. The corn muffin that serves as a sort of roof to keep the chili within the jar has a bit of welcome crispness, as does the cheddar biscuit paired with a jar full of sausage gravy.
Of course, there has to be a limit to what can be served in a jar. The Duce’s other specialty is sliders, usually offered in servings of three on metal trays. The trailer makes 10 different types with meaty fillings like cheeseburger or sausage and meatless ones with cheese, egg, or even peanut butter inside. If unsure of which to choose, the slider sampler offers a varied trio with one slider each containing smoky brisket; meatball with marinara sauce and arugula; and chicken sausage with peppers and onion — all contained inside of toasted buns with yielding interiors.
The tender brisket used in sliders also appears in a tall glass as a sort dinner in a dessert format. The brisket sundae layers meat with mashed potatoes and baked beans with a topping of coleslaw. Even though the Duce is not open until 11 AM, there are breakfast items on the menu. The berry apple cinnamon French toast features mixed berries all over the top; cooked, spiced apples hiding under the bread; and both a sweet glaze and powdered sugar adding a final touch. Other breakfast-for-dinner items include brisket hash and an oatmeal parfait.
The Duce has a full bar with cocktails, beer, and wine. For something without alcohol, the house-made lemonade can be accessorized with any number of fruits at the bar. Desserts include pastry displayed in a case outside the trailer, pies in a jar (of course), and various ice cream flavors. With wholesome comfort food, the Duce seems less scary than the Deuce neighborhood of Phoenix’s past. Still, the place’s retro appeal celebrates lesser known aspects of the city’s history even as this part of Phoenix is transformed by light rail and new construction.
525 S. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85004
Lincoln/Central (northbound) and Lincoln/First Avenue (southbound) stations (under construction)